Category Archives: Travel


After the train ride from hell, we joined all of our family in San Francisco. It was several days of celebration: a couple of kids’ birthdays, one family had their Seder while others dyed Easter eggs. Little did I know of the celebration of celebrations. I was instructed to be sure to wear the sport coat that Susan had insisted on packing. All of the family showed up, the children prepared for a day of play and the adults dressed up – unusual for a family gathering. The mystery deepened when a long white limousine pulled up in front of the house. The kids were left behind with the oldest teenager and a sitter in charge. The adults piled into the limo and headed through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge. I was told we were celebrating my upcoming birthday, but nothing more. The conversation turned to family activities and reminiscences as we maneuvered the weekend traffic in Marin and San Rafael out onto the green expanses of the Delta farms and marshes. It became evident that we were heading to Napa when the flatlands gave way to rolling hills and rows of close-trimmed grapevines.

Enjoying the ride

Finally, we pulled up to a gray stone building that was immediately recognizable as The French Laundry, the legendary restaurant that all of the family knew had been on my must-do list for many years. This was their surprise to commemorate my eightieth birthday.


We were greeted by a young man who had known Sarah and Evan since their days in New York where he had worked at Per Se. He and a young woman dressed in black led us on a brief tour of the gleaming kitchen filled with at least two dozen cooks in whites, each stationed at a specialized work space creating one or another beautiful dish. The woman in black then led us through the chilly wine cellar of 13,000 bottles into an elegant room that would be our home for the next four hours of eating. She pushed back a glass door and next a louvered screen to open the room to the outdoors and a beautiful garden scene. Then the performance began. The first act was a ritual sabrage performed by a tall man dressed in formal attire and carrying a shiny sword. With one whack of the sword, he lopped off the cork and bottle neck, losing nary a drop of champagne that he then poured into our waiting flutes after stabbing the sword into the lawn in front of us.

Then the food began.

The meal was filled with French Laundry classics. First were coronets: black-sesame-studded tuiles shaped into cones filled with crème fraiche and salmon tartare. Whimsical, beautiful, and tasty at the same time. Each coronet came in a little silver stand that was centered on the huge blue Limoges service plate. They outshone the accompanying “Ritz crackers”, tiny little cheesy biscuits, in visual drama but not necessarily in flavor. Both offerings were delicious.

Next came a small white bowl that nestled two perfect white asparagus tips and a dark disc of Perigord black truffle, Holland White Asparagus “Vichyssoise”. It was a little sad to see the composition disappear beneath a small lake of creamy soup, but the flavor made up for the visual loss.

Then came what is arguably the restaurant’s most famous dish: “Oysters and Pearls.”

Hen Egg Custard with ragout of Perigord truffles served in an egg shell with a laser-sharp rim and topped by a chive imprisoned between two impossibly thin, matched potato wafers

Éleveges Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras “Torchon” served with wine-poached sour apple, wild sorrel, and fennel “gastrique”

Sautéed Fillet of Mediterranean Turbot served with cream braised La Rotte potatoes, buttered brioche and black winter truffle emulsion. The fish and truffle emulsion were a perfect flavor combination.

Alaska King Crab “À La Plancha”  served with bantam hen egg “gnocchi”, winter radishes, garden celery and “Consommé Madrilène”. The fragrant, flavorful broth tied everything together.

“Bread and Butter” was a perfectly formed  rosette “Parker House Roll” with a center of roasted paprika and served with a  quenelle of Diane St Clair’s Animal Farm butter.

Devil’s Gulch Ranch Rabbit satsuma “Suprêmes”, served with glazed garden turnips and arrowleaf spinach

Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb with pea shoot “Pakora”, slow-roasted Nantes carrots, and Spanish caper-brown butter jus

“Gougère” Andanta Dairy “Etude” and Australian black winter truffle “Fondue”.

Tropical Fruit Ambrosia young coconut puree, lime scented golden pineapple, Matcha “Genoise” and Cherimoya sherbet

“Gâteau Pear and Caramel” caramel mouse with pear compote and “Pain de Gênes”

“Mignardises” – handcrafted chocolates and truffles of many flavors and beautiful coatings

To be sure, it was a most amazing meal. But the best part was to be surrounded by family and to share remembrances and stories that had already been retold many times and to laugh with one another. It was a wonderful way to mark eighty years of being on this earth, and this post is one way for me to thank all of my children and their loving spouses.



Filed under Food, Photography, Restaurants, Travel


What are the odds?

In 2014 I wrote about a train trip from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Our arrival was delayed by 12 hours because of a series of events seemingly beyond the control of Amtrak and definitely beyond my control. The delay began even before the train arrived because of a tree that had fallen across the tracks somewhere in Kansas. (Do they even have trees in that part of Kansas?) Then a drunk driver ran into the engine at a crossing in Gallup, New Mexico that resulted in a delay of several hours. When we finally got going again, the train cruised along until it came to an abrupt stop somewhere around Winslow, Arizona. Amtrak was faced with an obligatory time limit on the crew so we waited in the desert until a relief crew could be brought in from someplace else. This took a couple of hours, during which time the power went out and the toilets quit working. Finally things were restored and the rest of the trip to LA was uneventful, except for passenger grousing.

Well, it happened again – at least a somewhat better version of the same story. We were on the famous train that hugs the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles all the way to Seattle. Our destination was San Francisco where we planned to enjoy the weekend with family. The day had been enjoyable with spectacular views of the surf pounding against towering cliffs as well as pastoral scenes of mountain valleys made a brilliant green from recent rains. Just outside of Soledad, home of the infamous Soledad Prison, the train came to a sudden stop and then sat there. Finally, there was an announcement that the engine had encountered “debris” on the track, and that the trip would resume after damage had been assessed. My guess was that the “debris” may have been an escaped prisoner. I turned out to be wrong, but only barely. After more long minutes of silence, the conductor  announced that the train had struck a trespasser who had been walking on the track. He had experienced only an injury to his arm and had been transported to the hospital. (How amazing is that?) The story rapidly became embellished amongst the passengers to include details that the victim had been walking his children along the track (??!!) but they were not injured.

There was another delay because as a routine, the engineer had to be replaced after the accident to recover and to investigate the accident. The replacement had to come from a long distance. Finally the wait was over, and the train resumed its journey only to stop again in Salinas. The crew had used up its allowed time, and so a crew change was required. (Sound familiar?) Again, the replacements had to come from some distance. After an hour or so, the train started up again only to stop a short way down the track to put on another car. While we waited, the power went out and lights went out, too. I’m not sure about the toilets, but the outage did not last long and we were once again on our way. Finally, after 2 AM, our train pulled into the station in Oakland where we caught a bus over the Bay Bridge, then to an Über, and finally to our daughter’s house at a little past 3 AM.

Susan had been heard to say on more than one occasion during the trip, “Train travel is so relaxing.”


Filed under Travel


Last year there was a wildflower “super bloom” in Death Valley because of ideal rain and temperature. We couldn’t go. This year, because we now live in California and because of the enormous rains, we thought we would visit. We were a bit disappointed because the flowers were sparse. Still, we had a good time. As we had in the past, we entered the park from the town of Lone Pine that sits beneath Mt. Whitney. The Sierras were still covered in snow, and the view was spectacular.

The road took us along the edge of Owens Lake. Sand blew across the road as if we were in the middle of the Sahara. The once-huge lake was nothing but a salt flat, reminding us of the movie, “Chinatown”, and the politics that brought water from the region to boost the growth of Los Angeles. From there, the road plunges down 4,000 feet to the valley floor. Along the way, there are hairpin turns and several view points. In particular, the view from Father Crowley Point lets you peer into the deep and colorful canyons below. It is easy to understand the many metaphors including Hell and Death that have been used to describe the place.

As we descended, we saw a few wildflowers, but there were few places to stop on our journey. There were no flowers when we reached the first bit of civilization at Panamint Springs, and so we drove on without stopping. Stove Pipe Wells was filled with people in campers looking for a place to spend the night and hikers returning from a visit to the impressive sand dunes. We checked in with the ranger just as he was closing the office and then headed another few miles to Furnace Creek. The Ranch is a large development of restaurants, gift shops, motels, and camp grounds. The Inn is another mile or so further and rises up out of the desert like a mirage.

The Inn is a sprawling complex set against a steep hillside and surrounded with green lawns and palms of many varieties, including dates. There are bougainvillea, oleander, and flowers throughout the grounds. Although the place is a natural oasis fed by springs and a constant stream, it has the surreal appearance of something from the Arabian Nights.

Furnace Creek Inn was built in 1927, the same year as the beautiful Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. It was envisioned as a magnet for wealthy tourists traveling by train and later by automobile. Over the years, it has attracted many movie stars and politicians. Unfortunately, these days it is a little down at the heels, and the service is a little uneven. There are reported plans to refurbish the inn, and that will be great, Still the main reason one stays at the inn is to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the sunrises and sunsets.

Food is better than you might expect out in the middle of the desert. The bar drinks were delicious even though they didn’t have many call brands. The breakfasts were huge and  flavorful even though the waffle iron was broken and they were out of maple syrup anyway.

Highlights included smoked salmon crostini. The citrus duck was tender with crispy skin, the fat completely rendered, and the meat cooked to a barely pink. The salmon was well cooked and came with a radish coulis and a potato puree in the form of a pear and deep fried.

After our stay we traveled to the south end of the park. That turned out to be where the flowers were. Then we drove to the Mojave Reserve, a place we had never been before. Right in the middle of the reserve is a preserved train station that played a major role in the war effort in WWII. More wildflowers, and enormous pink-colored sand dunes.  Then back to fighting the traffic on the interstates until we made it home safely.


Filed under Food, Photography, Restaurants, Travel


I’ve discovered that Californians like to identify significant landmarks with “The” tacked on to the front. This last week, we visited our children and their families in The Bay Area. To get there, we drove up The 405 (Interstate Highway 405) and then The 5 (Interstate Highway 5). We stopped at my son’s house in Silicon Valley (Why no “The”?) and then up The 101 to stay with my daughter in The Presidio. We didn’t visit The Mission or The Tenderloin, but you get the idea. Of course, in Texas, alums are adamant that you know that they were graduated from The University (of Texas at Austin, of course.)

A visit to San Francisco always means we will do a lot of eating, so we went prepared, and we were not disappointed. This post will describe some of the places where we ate. You will probably not have heard of most of them. San Francisco is filled with temples of fine dining that you already know about. They all get lots of publicity, so they don’t need any more. The places we visited on this trip are neighborhood spots in parts of the city away from tourist meccas like Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, or Golden Gate Park and Golden Gate Bridge. The food may not be as fancy as in the high-end restaurants, but it is every bit as delicious.

Of course, one of our stops was Rich Table in Hayes Valley. Sarah joined us at the dinner table while Evan worked as expediter at the pass. He used the opportunity to send us one of everything on the menu. Lucky – and stuffed – us. RT is known for its changing menu of cocktails. One thing they like to do is to put a twist on the old classics. The Southern Belle is a delicious variation on the whiskey sour, The Jefferson is a dressed up old fashioned, and the Paradisi is a refreshing spin on the margarita. Probably next week the choices will be completely different. One of the appetizers was described as fried chicken madeleines with Tsar Nicoulai caviar and crème fraiche. The madeleines were made with bits of crispy chicken skin and tasted of fried chicken. I have never before had a savory madeleine. Pork shank spring rolls looked like regular spring rolls, but the filling was seasoned so differently and so elegantly that they were unique. They were paired with black garlic dipping sauce. Black garlic can’t be compared with regular garlic; it has a rich and complex flavor. French onion dip was as far removed from the Lipton’s onion soup variety as you can get. Besides, it was topped with trout roe and wheatgrass and served on a crisp wafer of lavash. For just a bite, pomelo wedges were combined with sansho pepper and wrapped in thin ribbons of hearts of palm. Very tasty and very refreshing. Miyagi oysters in their zebra-stripe shells came from Marin, and were served with a toasted sunchoke mignonette. There was more and more, but I have to describe the desserts as well. We had three different ones. The big hit had just come on the menu. It was described as coconut cake with lime meringue and brown-butter ice cream, but it was so much more than that. There is an even newer dessert, but we didn’t get to taste it because Sarah was still working out the recipe. It’s called the Rich Table Candy bar. The components include chocolate cremeaux, pecan butter crunch, and sorrel. The pecans are caramelized and then toasted to give an ethereal crunch. Sarah sent me a picture.

The next day we checked out the space for Sarah and Evan’s new venture, RT Rotisserie. The future restaurant is in the next block, and they have completely renovated the interior. They hope that they will be up and running in a month or so. Renovations always take longer than you think.

While we were in the neighborhood, we decided to have lunch in a bakery and pastry shop just across the street from Rich Table. The place is called 20th Century Café; it is owned by a woman who has been the pastry chef in a number of high-end, high-pressure kitchens. She knows what she is doing. When you enter the front door, you immediately get the subtle joke. The place is retro from the antique sconces on the wall to the marble-topped tables and mismatched chairs. Most of the menu items are updated versions of old timey classics, and the pastries are like those that you remember from your childhood. They make their own bagels so you know that they are fresh while still being retro. The owner goes along with her own joke. Her red hair is done in bangs and she has bright red lipstick. She wears a frilly flowered dress with matching necklace, and her feet are shod in low high heels and bobby sox. We enjoyed the perfectly cooked baked eggs and “everything” bagels with salmon and a schmear of cream cheese. Three of us shared a slice of the impossibly 10-layered Russian honey cake. Honey was the predominant flavor, but it was not overpowering.

Another day we spent in Outer Richmond. We did just a quick pass down Balboa Street. Outer Richmond is one of the many San Francisco neighborhoods that are rich with small restaurants and a dizzying choice of cuisines. In a single block on Balboa one could choose pho, bánh mi (separate shops), two kinds of Italian, Thai, Chinese, American, Indian, Middle Eastern, French, and probably several others. For our first stop was at an eclectic café called Cassava that specializes in breakfast and in eggs. It also turned out to be a good choice for lunch. The fried egg and avocado sandwich was delicious, with a runny-yolk egg peeking out from the toasted bread. The Randwich! was a hunk of focaccia filled with turkey, cheddar cheese, pesto, and a poached egg – similar ingredients, but a totally different flavor profile. The baked burrata and summer squash was creamy but it reminded me a bit of queso fundido without the chorizo. It was delicious, and with a glass of wine to wash it down, it was outstanding. The evening menu sounds to be much more adventuresome, with braised beef cheeks, salmon, octopus, and fish collar.

Next we stopped by the Marla Bakery because we were out of bread and had enjoyed one of their loaves earlier in the week. The store front caught my eye because of the artistic display of an enormous selection of artisanal breads. Once inside, we bought a loaf of sprouted wheat and another of sourdough. It was not our intention to sit down. But hey, how can you pass up a slice of chocolate cake? We didn’t.

Before we headed home, we stopped back in Silicon Valley to say goodbye to my son and his family. Peter, Susan, and I had lunch at the Cuisinett. This little bistro on the main street of San Carlos gives a fond nod to France. Many of the decorative posters are in French, several of the wait staff speak French, an impressive wine list is French, and the menu is definitely French comfort food. I had the French steak sandwich with brie and excellent frites, Peter had the salmon Provençal special, and Susan chose a delicious soup.

Then it was home. It rained every day while we were in the Bay Area. Apparently it rained every day in LA. When we drove by the San Luis Reservoir on Pacheco Pass it was filled nearly to the brim – something I had never seen. The same was true at Pyramid Lake just before you head down the Grapevine into the LA Basin. I hope that neither reservoir will have the tragic problems they are experiencing at Oroville.img_0888




Filed under Food, Photography, Restaurants, Travel


Our de-cluttering project extends to computers and computer files. In reading the drafts for the blog, I stumbled upon this post that I had written in 2012. I don’t remember why I didn’t publish it, but with a re-reading, I thought it deserved to see the light of day. The event was a very special occasion, and all of our children pulled out all of the stops to make it memorable.


(original date: August 12, 2012)

Recently we traveled to San Francisco, ostensibly to help Sarah and Evan with babysitting during their early days of getting their new restaurant, Rich Table, up and running.  We did that because both of them were at the restaurant from 10 in the morning to 3 in the morning.

But there was another reason for our trip. Our children had planned a surprise weekend for Susan, with everyone coming from Los Angeles and Silicon Valley to share a family weekend, complete with three children, their spouses, and five grandchildren.

The occasion was the celebration of one of those special decadal birthdays. The highlight of the celebration was a dinner for all the adults and a preteen at Rich Table. Sarah and Evan went out of their way to send out one fantastic dish after another. I would not be speaking in hyperbole to say it was the very best meal – and the very best celebration – I have every enjoyed in my life.

No recipes this time. The dishes were all too complicated and refined for me to try to copy. However, I will do my best to describe my impressions of the food. I can’t even begin to say what my “favorite” was, as every dish stood on its own and was complete in itself.

After a toast with Iron Horse sparkling wine, we ordered drinks. They were all riffs on classic cocktails, but they were all distinctly different. The Barnwood was Bourbon with a dash of bitters and a slice of fresh peach. The Land’s End was gin flavored with a sprig of fresh Monterey cypress.

With the drinks we got corn fritters and sardine chips. Both of these are destined to be signature dishes, and  they will probably soon be showing up on menus throughout the Bay Area.

The corn fritters came as a stack of perfect globes with the thinnest, crispest shell imaginable, dusted with powdered yeast. When I broke the crust, a liquid center filled with kernels of grilled corn spilled out to mix with the cilantro salsa verde.

The sardine chips were big potato chips with a slim sardine fillet woven through and the whole thing fried to a crunchy, crisp texture. I could have made a meal of these, and ordinarily I don’t even like sardines.

Italian peppers  so sweet that they tasted almost like candy were grilled to perfection and then stuffed with slivers of succulent duck. We fought over who got the last of this dish.

Plancha bread was served as an anvil-shaped flat bread topped with burrata, summer squash and squash blossoms with a hint of shiso.

Who would believe that watermelon and squid would go together – along with black olives and crispy onions? My daughter, Carol, and her daughter, who don’t eat onions, were dueling each other for the last of the crispy onions that came on the top of this dish.

Beef tartare with cucumber yogurt was delicious, but I was more partial to the tagliatelle Bolognese with marrow and crispy leaves of kale.

The Pacific halibut with crisp pork belly and transparently thin Tokyo turnips was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

Throughout the meal we feasted on chunks of levain scented with wild fennel pollen and served with butter churned in-house after it had been cultured for several days. This was definitely not your ordinary restaurant bread.

I liked the spaghetti with yellow tail tuna and broccolini espellete. The sauce was so smooth and buttery that it coated your mouth with a taste you didn’t want to give up.

We had one dish that was not on the menu – rabbit cannelloni served with tiny, sweet tomatoes. Another dish that I could have easily had seconds and thirds.

Our dessert was also off the menu. Sarah had made a “birthday cake” of Hyde Park Café peach pudding. Susan and I had enjoyed the tasty dessert many times with Sarah when she was in Austin. Susan had managed to talk the cafe out of the recipe, and she had baked it for Sarah on special occasions. This was turn-about at its highest level. The cake capped the end of a warm and wonderful family celebration.


Filed under Food, Photography, Restaurants, Travel


We’ve had our son and his two daughters visiting us the last few days. He was in town for a meeting, and the children flew in by themselves for the weekend. During their visit they took a couple of hikes and spent an afternoon at the swimming pool at the Community Recreation Center. The pool is a favorite place for all of our grandchildren because of the giant water slide.

The fist day, they visited Tent Rocks National Monument. The tent rocks are columns of volcanic tuff as high as 80 feet and topped with more durable cap rocks. The site has a slot canyon that you have to squeeze through to get to the top of the mesa. There are also petroglyphs if you look carefully.

The second day they visited Tsankawi Ruins, part of Bandelier National Monument. The trail leads to the top of a mesa where the ruined ancient village is littered with decorated pottery shards. Much of the trail winds through the volcanic tuff layer. It has winding, deep grooves, probably worn by countless foot steps, but possibly also carved out so that potential invaders had to come up the steep hillside in single file.

On our son’s arrival, we had refreshments on the patio. Something more substantive than salted nuts but less than a full meal seemed in order. Stuffed mushrooms sounded like the perfect alternative. Shrimp was a perfect stuffing. As you’ll see in the recipe, there is a lot of chopping. You could use a food processor instead. Just be careful not to turn everything to mush. I prefer hand-chopped ingredients to give contrasting textures and bursts of different flavors.


Shrimp-Stuffed Mushrooms


  • 12 3-inch crimini mushrooms
  • olive oil
  • ½ pound boiled shrimp, cleaned and tails removed
  • 1 scallion
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup panko
  • ¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted in a small dry saucepan
  • ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • salt and pepper to taste


  1. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and set aside.
  2. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, sauté the mushroom caps on both sides in about 1 – 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Transfer to a small baking sheet, hollow side up.
  3. Chop the mushroom stems and sauté in the same pan using more olive oil as needed. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
  4. Chop the shrimp finely. Chop the scallion finely, including the green top.
  5. In a bowl, combine the chopped shrimp and scallion, reserved chopped mushroom stems, mayonnaise, panko, and pine nuts. Stir in Old Bay seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Fill each mushroom cap with the shrimp mixture. Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 350°F for 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven, transfer to a plate, and serve while still warm.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes, Travel


We spent a few days in Estes Park giving our sister-in-law/sister a helping hand during her recovery. Before it was time to go, we drove around town. There were sights to behold. The Stanley Hotel sits high over the town. It is a beautifully preserved white clapboard hotel of the same era as the Coronado Hotel in  San Diego and the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. It has one further attraction – it served as the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, even though the very scary movie was filmed at the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood with interiors styled after the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. Every room in the Stanley is said to be haunted, but room 217 where King stayed is the epicenter of supposed paranormal activity.

The Stanley Hotel. Ask for room 271.

The Stanley Hotel. Ask for room 271.

The other sight we enjoyed was the herds of elk grazing on the lawns of various homes in the city. The elk are not tame, but you certainly wouldn’t know it. I’m not sure that I would like elk in my front yard, especially during rutting season, although they probably enrich the soil.

Elk herd grazing in the subdivision

Elk herd grazing in the subdivision

Front yard grass is the best

Front yard grass is the best

We left Estes Park by way of the Peak-to-Peak Highway, a winding but excellent road that clings to the Front Range, including the spectacular 14’er, Long’s Peak. The day was warm; the skies were clear and deep blue; so the white snow on the peaks and the dark green of the conifer forests was truly breath-taking. We saw herds of deer and even a flock of big horn sheep.

Along the Peak-to-Peak Highway

Along the Peak-to-Peak Highway

Long's Peak

Long’s Peak

After a short bypass on I70, we headed off into South Park (the real South Park), an enormous valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks including the Collegiate Range – Mt Princeton, Mt. Harvard, and Mt. Yale. Then we headed over the pass into the San Luis Valley decorated with a wall of several 14 thousand foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. It was humbling to think that the famous Mountain Men were the first Europeans to see this country, but the names of rivers – St. Vrain , Platte – reminded us of them.

Then on to New Mexico where Kit Carson hung out, and the mountains were every bit as beautiful. When we got home we discovered catkins on our backyard aspen. Spring cannot be far away.

Aspen catkins

Aspen catkins

Unfortunately, the cupboard was bare. We had a few onions, so I decided to make French onion soup. I took some modest shortcuts with Julia Child’s recipe. It turned out to be remarkably easy, and the result was delicious. It is hard to understand why French onion soup in restaurants often tastes so bland and watery.


French Onion Soup


  • 3 medium yellow onions
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil + some for croutons
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 42 ounces beef stock
  • ½ cup dry vermouth
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2  ½-inch slices good quality bread
  • garlic powder
  • 4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated


  1. Peel the onions, and with a mandoline slice into thin rounds.
  2. In a heavy pot over medium-low heat, cook the onions, covered,  in the butter and oil for 15 minutes until they are wilted and translucent but not browned.
  3. Remove the lid, stir in the salt and sugar, and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onions are caramelized and golden brown. Stir in the flour, and cook for a few minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour.
  4. Stir in the beef stock and vermouth. Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add water if the soup gets too concentrated.
  5. In the meantime, use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the bread slices with olive oil. Sprinkle on garlic powder. Cut into ½-inch cubes and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake in the middle of a 170°F oven for 30 minutes or until the bread cubes are thoroughly dry. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  6. Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls. Arrange croutons on top. Sprinkle with the grated Gruyère and set on a baking pan. Place in the middle of an oven heated to 400°F and warm until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbling, about 5 to 15 minutes. Watch carefully to prevent burning.
  7. Remove from the oven and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes, Travel


When we arrived back home, I downloaded my camera to see if I had managed to capture any images of our visit to California. Here are a few of those memories:

Among the things we found in our cooler from the trip were some fragments of cheese that we had bought in Lodi. The night before our return home, Peter and his family stopped by our apartment on their way back to the Bay Area from a ski day in Kirkwood. We enjoyed some local wine and a plate of cheese before we went out to dinner.

We had found the cheese at a great little cheese shop on School Street, the main drag of Lodi’s charming historic downtown. Cheese Central is owned by a very pleasant woman, Cindy Della Monica, who clearly enjoys what she is doing. Most cheesemongers seem to have a good time and love to talk about cheese. That, and free samples, helps them sell their products. Karen, Cindy’s very knowledgeable assistant, was happier and more enthusiastic than any other cheesemonger I have ever met. She shared some excellent samples and gave us some very good suggestions.

We wound up buying a French epoisse cut fresh from a three-pound log, a Spanish cinco lanzas, and a Welsh cheddar, along with some crackers and a bit of quince paste membrillo. The cinco lanzas is made  by Queso García Baquero in La Mancha in the style of manchego (even with a similar dark grass imprint on the rind) but instead of sheep milk, it is made from a secret blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk. It went well with the membrillo. The Welsh cheddar was the big surprise. It is called “Amber Mist” and is made by the Snowdonia Cheese Company. The surprise is that the cheese is soft and crumbly because of added Scotch whiskey which adds to the flavor without being overpowering.

We had a wonderful time with Peter’s family; the two girls loved the membrillo and all of the cheeses along with some heart-shaped water biscuits. Even at that, there were leftovers. But not enough for another cheese party when we got home. Still, the cheeses wouldn’t last forever, and they were too delicious to throw out. That’s when I decided to use them for a special mac and cheese. Our three cheeses went well together, but you should be careful with your choices. The cheese should melt, so no hard cheeses. Blue cheeses might overpower any others. Stinky cheese should not be included, and after a two-day road trip the epoisse came close to disqualifying itself.

Somehow mac and cheese seemed to be a bit prosaic. I substituted potatoes for pasta, added some more ingredients, and poured in a little extra whiskey to flavor things a bit more.  I used some Italian guanciale (cured hog cheek) but you can easily substitute pancetta or bacon or even nothing. Here’s the ad hoc recipe. It turned out pretty good, I think.


Spuds ‘n’ Whiskey Cheese


  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced, ½ inch cubes
  • 4 ounces guanciale, trimmed of skin and diced (Use pancetta or bacon if you prefer, or omit)
  • 2 medium crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 scallions sliced (include green tops)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups milk
  • 2 ounces Scotch whiskey (don’t use your 18-year-old single malt) or other whiskey*** Optional
  • salt and pepper
  • leftover cheeses (about 4 ounces)
  • butter for preparing baking dish and topping the casserole filling
  • panko
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan


  1. In a heavy pot, cover the cubed potatoes with well salted water, bring to the boil, and cook for 10-12 minutes until the potatoes have softened but not cooked through. Remove from the heat, drain, and set aside.
  2. In the meantime, sauté the guanciale over medium heat until it is crispy. Drain on several thicknesses of paper towel and set aside. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the rendered fat; add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until cooked through. Drain and set aside.
  3. Prepare the scallions and set aside.
  4. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter until it has stopped foaming. Add the flour and stir while cooking another 5 minutes until the mixture is cooked but not browned. Stir in the milk and continue to stir until the mixture thickens and comes to a simmer. Stir in the whiskey, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  5. Over low heat, add the leftover pieces of cheese to the white sauce. Grate the cheese if it is in large chunks. Stir until the cheese is completely melted.
  6. Stir in the sautéed guanciale,, mushrooms, and scallions.
  7. Combine the potatoes and sauce.
  8. Prepare a baking dish by liberally buttering the inside of a baking dish and coating the inside with panko. Transfer the potato-sauce mixture to the baking dish, and top with more panko and grated Parmesan. With a pastry brush, paint the top of the casserole with melted butter.
  9. Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 350°F for one hour until the top is browned and bubbling. Serve while still warm.



Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes, Travel


We are back from our long visit to Lodi, California. We had a great time and returned with a trunk filled with bottles of wine that we found at some of the more than 80 wineries in the Lodi area. We plowed through two days of rain and snow with tense times on the passes in Tehachapi, California and Flagstaff, Arizona.

When we got home, the cupboard was bare – or nearly so – requiring a little innovation on my part to come up with something to eat. I fell back on a post that I had just read a few days before. Diane Darrow writes an interesting blog, Another Year in Recipes. She lives in New York City but has spent much time in Italy and has authored two Italian cookbooks. She wrote of making a bean soup from one of her cookbooks when she was snowed in during the recent NYC blizzard. You should definitely check out her blog.

This is not Diane’s recipe, but it is certainly inspired by hers. I confess that I had run out of ditali and had to turn to elbow macaroni. I also had to run to the market for a bunch of kale, but otherwise everything else was in the pantry or in the little cooler we always carry in our car. The next day I went back to the store for a marathon journey through the aisles.



Bean and Kale Soup


  • 2/3 cup dry black-eyed peas
  • 2/3 cup dry black beans
  • 2/3 cup dry red beans
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • ½ cup celery chopped
  • ½ cup carrots, grated
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 8 ounces canned tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning blend
  • 1 tablespoon rubbed sage
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 bunch kale
  • ½cup elbow macaroni
  • 2/3 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
  • extra virgin olive oil (your best)


  1. Pick over the beans, removing any stones, and place in a large, lidded, heavy pot. Cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for two minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and set aside until the pot has cooled. Drain the beans and set aside.
  2. Rinse and dry the pot. Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat, covered, for about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Stir in the celery, carrots, reserved beans, beef stock, and tomato sauce. Bring to the boil and then simmer covered for about 1 hour.
  3. Add the garlic, mushrooms, seasoning blend, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer, covered. Add water if needed.
  4. Meanwhile, wash the kale. Remove the stems and center ribs, soaking the leaves in cold water for an hour. Cut the kale into 3 x 3 inch pieces and add to the soup pot. Cover and continue to cook for another hour, stirring occasionally. About 15 minutes before you are ready to serve, stir in the macaroni.
  5. When the beans are soft, and the kale has cooked down, correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into serving bowls, top with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes, Travel


Our month-long visit to Lodi, California, has provided us an excellent base to explore the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the area that was the center of the feverish gold rush that began in 1849. We have visited Sacramento, now the capital of California, but at one time a center for transportation during the gold rush as well as serving as the western terminus (San Francisco notwithstanding) of the great race between the Central and Union Pacific Railroads to meet up to create the first transcontinental railroad. We have also visited some of the historic towns in the foot hills and taken back roads into the mountains and the areas of devastation from the “Butte Fire” of last summer. All of it has been a learning experience.

Sacramento is much like any big city. It has around a half million residents and traffic to match. The capital building is a replica (smaller of course) of the national Capitol in Washington DC and it has its own beautiful mall. The riverfront has been restored into “Old Sacramento” which, like most “Old [fill in the blank]” is filled with Victorian-era buildings, bars, restaurants, and gift shops.

But one place in Old Sacramento that shouldn’t be missed is the Railroad Museum. The place has accumulated engines and rail cars that capture the entire history of California railroading. The rolling stock has all been carefully restored. The museum goer can walk through many of the exhibits. Some of the restored cars even replicate the rocking motion of a speeding train. We spent several hours in the museum and then decided that we didn’t need to see any more of Sacramento.

We explored several mining towns and soon learned that you have to get off of the main highway. The main drags are universally lined with the usual  gas stations, McDonald’s, hardware stores and Dollar Generals. The old town Main Streets are the places to experience the real feel of the communities.

One of our first visits was to Murphy’s. The main landmark of the street is “Murphy’s Historic Hotel” which advertises itself as having served the town since 1850. That claim does not make it clear whether the current building is the original, but that doesn’t really matter. The building is old enough and run down enough that you can picture it as the background of a gun fight during gold rush days. There is a bar in the front of the building where locals hang out. In the back, the dining room has been fixed up to capture Victorian styles. It looks like a good place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or a fancier dinner. There are white linen tablecloths and comfortable chairs. Lots of good California wine choices. The food turned out to be “ok” with a badly over-cooked hamburger supposedly topped with blue cheese crumbles that turned out to be a grayish unpleasant-tasting blob that could only be salvaged by scraping it off. Perhaps the “chef” (who had just started work that day according to the slightly deaf server) put the blue cheese on the burger too early in the cooking process. The bacon-wrapped shrimp po’boy special turned out to be a better choice.

Another stop was Sonora. The guidebook informed us that the town had been named by homesick Mexicans for their home state in Mexico. They had apparently come to California during the gold rush to make their fortunes. Our food discovery in that quaint little town was Talulah’s Restaurant, named by the woman owner just because she thought the name sounded cute. The Victorian storefront was painted in bright chartreuse, and the inside also had touches of chartreuse. Not a big place, it had a surprisingly large menu with, of course, a good selection of California wines.  The mushroom soup was so flavorful and aromatic that I started to eat it before I remembered to make an image. The complementary garlic bread turned out to be picture perfect and delicious to boot. The marinara on the spaghetti was not my recipe, but it was flavorful and tasted of fennel and just a hint of cinnamon and cloves. (I know what you’re thinking – no, it was not Cincinnati five-way chili. It was really quite tasty.) The grand finish was a delicate lemon cake filled with a light-as-a-feather lemon mousse and topped with a warm lemon sauce.

We drove through Angel’s Camp, named after Mr. Angel, not the celestial variety. Angel’s Camp is home to Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, so everything was named, “Frog”, including the high school mascot.

My favorite place was Sheep Ranch (the name of the town, population 32) located on Sheep Ranch Road and former headquarters for the Sheep Ranch Mine. There was a large, still well-preserved but unoccupied white hotel nestled in the pines at the end of the main street. There were no restaurants in town, but the abandoned general store still advertised gasoline at 18 cents a gallon. Unfortunately there was none for sale.

Sheep Ranch

Sheep Ranch

Up Swiss Ranch Road, after the pavement had turned to gravel, we discovered an ornate iron gate that looked as though it was the entrance to a great English country house. Its story remains a mystery to us, but I am certain it would be very interesting.

The saddest part of our trip was to see the devastation caused by the “Butte Fire” of October, 2015. Miles of forest were burned and over 500 homes were destroyed. Most of the ruined buildings had nothing above the foundation, and they were surrounded by the shells of burned-out cars and trucks. It will be years before the forests and hazardous materials are cleared, decades – if ever – before the forests come back, and probably never for families to put their lives back together.



Filed under Food, Photography, Restaurants, Travel