Tag Archives: Big Sur

FOR WANT OF A NAIL – THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

On the last leg of our marathon child-tending expedition in California, we headed back to the Bay Area.  This was also sort of holiday, so we drove up Highway 1 through Big Sur, one of our favorite places to visit.

For the first few days we were in Silicon Valley while our daughter-in-law was in Prague at a meeting. (Someone has to do it, right?) She sent us back images of goulash, beer, and sausage. Otherwise, there were no food adventures. We ordered a lot of takeout. I made macaroni and cheese and opened a jar of spaghetti sauce with NO additional seasoning. Both of the girls have very specific and definite food biases, One night at the dinner table the 9-year-old was asked if we could get her anything. Her reply was, “A good cook.” You get the idea.

Then we went back to San Francisco with the two toddlers while their parents went out of town to judge a cooking contest. That is the source of my tale and the title of this little essay. You recall the old proverb … “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a knight was lost; for want of a knight, a battle was lost; for want of a battle, a kingdom was lost.” Also, there is the butterfly effect in chaos theory which stems from the suggestion that the fluttering of a butterfly can influence a subsequent hurricane.

Sarah and Evan left for Shreveport early in the morning. They talked about getting an Uber car to the airport, and then decided to drive. In retrospect, a big mistake. Then the little one awoke unexpectedly as they were heading out the door. First delay. Interstates 280 and 380 were both busier than expected even though it was early during the morning rush hour. Next delay. Then the airport parking lot was full, so they had to go to the off-site lot. Next delay. The man in front of them couldn’t get the gate to the lot opened so they had to wait for him to solve his problem. The shuttle to the terminal was delayed. But they still had time. Then they faced a long line for baggage and check-in, but they got their bags checked.

Of course, security was impossible, but they finally made it through, only to discover the gate had closed. Unfortunately, their bags had made it on the plane to go through Dallas to Shreveport, so they couldn’t change airlines, and the next available flight was eight hours later. (The lesson from this: don’t check bags if you are running late.) They were told that there were no late flights to Shreveport so that they would have to spend the night in Dallas. Meanwhile their luggage made it to Shreveport.

It is only a 3 hour drive on interstate between DFW and Shreveport, so they decided to rent a car at DFW. By now it was after midnight, and the car rental had a hard time finding a car. Finally, that was solved, and they were in fairly good spirits. UNTIL – about 2 AM, with Sarah asleep as they made it through the East Texas Piney Woods, Evan said, “Oh, my God,” waking Sarah just in time for a loud crash and a huge rush of steam onto the windshield. The steam blocked their view of the road. When they were able to pull over, Sarah got out of the car (Evan was afraid of getting hit by traffic) to find a deer impaled on the radiator. A highway patrolman did come and pulled the deer out of the car, but the car was not driveable.  So the next task was to find a tow truck – a challenge at 3 AM. They were finally towed into the Shreveport airport so that the ruined car could be deposited and the hapless couple could retrieve their luggage. There was no replacement car available, but with some effort one was found at a competing rental agency in exchange for more money.

By this time, it was 6 AM. When they arrived at their hotel, Sarah and Evan were told that their room had been given away, and that the hotel was booked up. Sarah burst into tears; a room was found; and the two were able to catch a couple of hours of sleep before the event.

Everything then went well, and Sarah and Evan had a good time serving as judges for a sort of “Chopped” event featuring some local cooks. They even won a few dollars at the sponsoring casino.

The story ended happily when they came back to their smiling boys. Besides, they will now have a great tale to tell their grandchildren many years from now.

Just remember, your fate may hang on the wings of the butterfly you see in your garden.

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PLUM TART

A while back, I wrote about some of the favorite foods we shared during our annual family rendezvous in Big Sur. Someone asked for the recipe for the plum tart . This is the tart that Sarah made for the adults at our family cookout. Choose whatever sweet plums suits your fancy, although they should be free stone so that you can slice them easily. Use your favorite pie crust recipe, and bake the shell “blind” to receive the filling. The tart is best when topped with crème fraîche, whipped cream, or ice cream.

Plum tart

PLUM TART

(Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Seasonal Fruit Desserts)

Ingredients

1 nine-inch pie crust, baked blind (see below)

1½ pounds fresh free stone plums, skins on

4 teaspoons brown sugar

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

zest of one orange

⅔ Cup walnuts, toasted in a dry skillet and chopped finely

  1. Line a nine-inch pie pan with your favorite pie crust recipe. Crimp the edges, pierce the bottom several times with the tines of a fork. Line with aluminum foil, and fill with beans or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes in the middle of a 375° oven. Remove from the oven. Remove the weights and foil and cool on a rack.
  2. In the meantime, slice the plums and set aside.
  3. Combine the sugar, spices, and zest with a mortar and pestle to release the orange oils. Then toss with the chopped walnuts.
  4. Scatter ⅔ of the walnuts in the bottom of the pie shell. Cover with the plum slices, arranging them so that some of the skins are showing.
  5. Scatter the remaining walnuts over the top of the plum slices.
  6. Bake at 375° for about 35 minutes or until the plums have begun to release their juices.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

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BIG SUR (Continued)

In a previous post, I wrote about some of the good family food and eating experiences that we enjoyed during our recent family rendezvous in Big Sur. This time, I want to describe some of our favorite restaurants. There is no lack in Big Sur of good eating choices for every budget and for every time of day. We certainly haven’t tried them all. So often we are on our way to something else and the time is not right. But we have also become creatures of habit, so we come back to our old standbys.

Fresh berry strudel at Big Sur Bakery

Without doubt, the place we visit the most is the Big Sur Bakery. We used to make elaborate home-made breakfasts in the cabin – pancakes, omelets, scrambled eggs and bacon – but no more. Every morning we head to the Big Sur Bakery, often with the younger ones chanting in the background what has almost become a mantra, “Big Sur Bakery! Big Sur Bakery!” The obvious reasons for this change of allegiance are first there is nothing to clean up except for busing your table when you are finished and second the pastries and breakfast dishes are unbelievably delicious. My very favorite is the ham and cheese croissant, but the daily fritatta runs a close second. For those with a sweet tooth, the berry strudel is a pleaser. The pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) is a popular choice for kids. The citrus bun is also popular with everyone. Beverages are also varied and creative. The barista spends as much effort with the kids’ hot chocolates as he or she (depending on the day) does with the lattes. There is a whole wall full of choices for hot tea, or you can get iced tea or fresh fruit juice. When we first started going to Big Sur, the bakery was popular, but now it has clearly been discovered. If you arrive at 8 AM there is likely to be a line waiting for the doors to open. If you arrive too late – say around 11 – there is a good chance that they will have run out of your favorite. If that happens, hang around for lunch or dinner because their offerings for those meals are creative and delicious.

Cooling off before lunch at the Big Sur River Inn

The Big Sur River Inn is a popular family gathering place for lunch. By noon, the fog has almost always burned off so that the deck is warm and sunny. The choices are all pretty much American – burgers, sandwiches, interesting soups, and salads filled with just about whatever you might want – but they are well prepared, tasty, and generously sized for the price. For the kids (as well as their parents) an unusual advantage of the River Inn is that you can choose to sit in the river. That’s right! There are Adirondack chairs in the middle of the river running behind the restaurant where you can sit and cool your feet in the rushing water while you are waiting for your lunch. The place serves dinner, too, and often has live entertainment later in the evening. The River Inn is at or near the nerve center of the Big Sur because it has one of the best grocery stores with a selection of wine, beer, and liquor and it also is nearby several motels and campgrounds as well as Big Sur’s version of a shopping mall: three or four little shops with clothing, curios, and other odds and ends.

The outside deck at Nepenthe

Nepenthe is quintessential Big Sur. It has been in place for a long time, and to prove it there are pictures around of customers relaxing during the days of Jack Kerouac and before. That means that a lot of today’s older visitors remember the place from their “Hippie Days”. The big attraction is the view, and it is at its best after the fog has gone and before the sun has set, so clearly lunch is a popular time. Arrive when they open, and you will probably be able to get a table outside with a view. Things fill up fast, so you may need to wait, but there are some comfortable waiting areas outside. The food is good but not amazing. The “signature dish”, if there is one, is the Ambrosiaburger topped with a special sauce. The French dip sandwich is straight out of the sixties and reminiscent of the one my mother always prepared for my kids during their visits. The bean salad is much more complex than the three-bean salad you have probably had a hundred times before. It has an herbal taste that complements whatever you have with it.  The soup of the day is always unique. One of my favorites is the curried apple. The name may not sound too exciting, but the soup is outstanding.

There are other very special places including the Post Ranch and Ventana. Those have spectacular views, elegant dining rooms, and amazingly sophisticated foods for being so far from the big cities. For them, you might consider dressing a little better than the usual Big Sur casual, and you should definitely be prepared when the check arrives. Still, the experience makes it seem very much worth it.

French dip sandwich and bean salad at Nepenthe

This list has only scratched the surface of the restaurant experiences that are available to you in Big Sur. Much of the fun is exploring the possibilities on your own.

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BIG SUR

Another view of Bixby Creek Bridge

I have been away for a couple of weeks, enjoying our annual family rendezvous in Big Sur. For the last six years or so, we have met at the Pfeiffer State Park, each family laden with food, snacks, and wine. Unfortunately, our son and his family could not join us this time because of school obligations. Those seem to increase as children get older. But the others came prepared for a week of hiking, playing on the beach, enjoying one another’s company,  and getting caught up on events since we last saw one another.

One of our traditions is to bring lots of the family’s favorite snacks – “Texas trash” and old-fashioned Southern cheese straws. The Texas trash is our version of the chex mix recipe that you can find on the back of a box of wheat chex. We add a few more items like different nuts, funny pretzel shapes or whatever and more butter. You can be as creative as you like. The cheese straws come from Craig Claiborne’s classic cook book, ”Southern Cooking”. The only thing we do a little differently is to  put the dough through a cookie press into the form of five-petal flowers. That shape has been obligatory for as long as I can remember.  It has the advantage for the eater of being able to  just bite off one petal  at a time. That way you feel more virtuous even though the recipe calls for practically nothing but butter, cheese, and just enough flour to hold everything together.

Grilled flank steak

This year, we gathered while my older daughter prepared one of her old standby recipes – “Law School Chicken”. She developed the recipe while she and her husband were both in law school. It was a cheap, easy-to-fix one-dish dinner that could be served to company. It was also a welcome change from instant  ramen. 

Roasted corn fresh from the coals

Carol says it is easy to make. First, she dusts some chicken breasts with flour and sautés them in a little butter and oil until they are cooked through and browned and crispy on the outside. While the chicken is cooking, she caramelizes some fresh peeled peach halves along with some slices of red and white onion. She boils some couscous in chicken stock with just enough of the stock left over to moisten everything. A good squeeze of fresh lemon brightens the taste.  When everything is done, she serves the chicken over the couscous, peaches,  and onions  and completes the meal with a green salad. Delicious. It is so good that, unfortunately I got busy eating and forgot to take a picture for you. Nevertheless, you get the idea.  Give it a try. I think you will add it to your list of tasty meals to make when you are in a hurry.

Plum tart

The next night we had our traditional cookout with steaks, roasted corn on the cob, beverages, and of course, s’mores over the campfire. This year, though, we did it differently, and I would highly recommend our new approach. In the past we have had big steaks for all of the adults and a shared steak for the children. While that sounds wonderful, the problem is always that the steaks have to be grilled in batches because the grills available in the picnic grounds are too small. Some turn out to be too well-done while others are too rare, and some of the adults have finished eating before others have even started. This year my younger daughter suggested flank steak – which turned out to work beautifully. We bought two large flank steaks for six adults and three children, marinated them all day with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and then grilled them over a charcoal fire. My son-in-law, the chef, grilled them to perfection, sliced them, and served them to everyone at the same time.  

Another change this year was to use charcoal for the main cooking and to save the campfire for later. The charcoal gave us an even fire and also let us put ears of fresh corn in the coals. In preparation, we removed all of the silks from the corn while keeping the husks intact to fold back over the individual ears. 

All got their fill, so it was soon time for s’mores. We put a log on the charcoal fire, waited until it flared up, and then made classic s’mores with toasted (burned) marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers.  If you have not eaten one of these fabled treats for many years, trust me: only kids can eat one of these sugar bombs, So dessert for adults was a delicious plum tart that Sarah had made with fresh plums from a friend’s back yard.

Tomato jam quiche

Lunch the next day included a delicious quiche from Sarah. She made a jam from tomatoes that we had brought her from our garden. She peeled and seeded the tomatoes and then cooked them down with flavorings into a beautiful jam.  She then ; made a pie shell using a favorite recipe of my wife, Susan, and filled it with a thin layer of caramelized onions, topped it with a custard of cream, eggs, farmer’s cheese, and basil, and baked it. After it had cooled, she covered it with the tomato jam. Beautiful to see and wonderful to eat.

There were a lot more good things to eat, including treats from some of our favorite restaurants in Big Sur. With my next post, I’ll tell you about some of our favorite places to eat in Big Sur

RECIPES

Cheese Straws

1¾ Cups all-purpose flour

8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated on a box grater

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, cut into 16 pieces

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon Cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce.

  1. Add the flour and cheese to the bowl of a food processor. Cover and pulse together  until well combined.
  2.  Add the butter, salt, Cayenne pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Cover and process until  the mixture comes together as a ball.
  3. Stop the processor and knead the dough briefly to bring together any loose particles. Wrap in plastic wrap and let set at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.
  4. Divide the dough in fourths or enough to fill a cookie press fitted with the patterned plate of your choice.
  5. Push the dough out as individual “cookies” on two ungreased baking sheets.
  6.  Place the baking sheets in an oven preheated to 300° and bake for 20 minutes until the cheese straws are crisp and slightly browned. Bake longer if you wish them to be darker,   but be careful as they burn easily.
  7. Transfer to cooling racks. Store the completely cooled  cheese straws in the refrigerator in an air-tight container.

Yield: Makes about 60 flower-shaped cheese straws

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