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Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Holiday of Her Own

My husband Gene and I share a "blended" family of four kids, 7 grandkids, two stellar sons-in-law, 12 siblings, a gazilion nieces and nephews,  and a couple of "bonus" kids we've picked up along the way who needed a safe place to land and a haven to call home.  Suffice it to say, I own a lot of dishes. 

Blending families is a tricky business.  It takes time.  And patience.  And love.  And commitment.  And flexibility ... lots of it.  It's extra tricky on the holidays, and Gene and I have tried hard over these last 15 years to make it as easy as possible for our kids to navigate the scheduling minefield that comes with having multilples sets of parents, in-laws, and ex's.  Early on, I chose to let go of a some of my own family's holiday traditions to make room for  new ones with my new family. It was the right choice and I would do it again, but over time I came to realize that I had unwittingly asked, and expected, my daughter Tori to make those concessions as well.  I have few regrets in my life, but this is one I wish I could have done better.

In her third year of college, Tori called one evening and said she had something important she wanted to discuss with us.  My mind immediately raced ahead to the possibilities ... Do you mind if I get my nose pierced?  I just got a tattoo.  Could you send me more money?  The usual stuff.  But no, what Tori wanted (and more important, what Tori NEEDED) was a holiday of her own.  "I've been thinking about this for a long time," she said.  "May I please have Easter?  I'll cook." 

We said yes. Of course!  Absolutely!  (And, might I add, did a quick high-five that once again we dodged the Nose Piercing Bullet and managed to hold on to our wallets.)  Easter was promptly blocked out on the calendar and handed over to our Big City Girl.  "Just tell us when and where," we said.

Tori's first Holiday of Her Own reminded me of a famous circus act involving a whole lot of clowns crammed into a little Volkswagon Bug.   By this time, Tori and her roommates were living in a cozy turn-of-the-century bungalow across the street from the University of Portland and she was hosting a weekly "family night" of home-cooked meals, movies & popcorn for all their friends.  I donned an apron and went to work on a pot of mashed potatoes while Gene played doorman to a steady flow of college students who made themselves right at home on the couch, the floor, in the kitchen, you name it.  Our little hostess-with-the-mostess was right in her element and loving it.  Frankly, so were we!  Our nest had been empty  for a few years and we missed the noise, the music, the phone ringing off the hook, kids flopped on the floor of our living room, and shoes piled up in the entryway. 

These last few years, Tori has continued the tradition of hosting Easter Dinner and offering the haven of a warm and welcoming home to her guests.  And their friends.  And the neighbors.  This year, she brought Easter to our house so that my sweet little granny and my mother could join us.  Four generations of strong-willed women and one lone male.  And what a beautiful meal we shared!  Baked ham, creamy mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, fresh baked bread, and an AMAZING salad made with Israeli couscous ... topped off with homemade apple crisp for dessert!  Mercy, that girl can cook!

This evening, as I wiped off the kitchen counters and put the last load of dishes in the dishwasher, I thought of the rest of our beautiful, Blended Bunch.  Our daughter Kathy and her brood were sharing a meal with her extended family in Portland; daughter Shellie and her little family joined Gene for early mass and then headed back over the mountain to spend the day with her in-laws;  son Dan spent his  first Easter away from his boys, working on a movie project in New Zealand; and our oldest granddaughter Megan, who attends college in San Antonio, also spent her first Easter away from home.   We missed them today,  but we shared the day with them in spirit and look forward to Christmas morning, when the whole clan can be together under one roof at THE SAME TIME and Grandpa Gene can wreak havoc in my kitchen.

My Big City Girl left this evening to head back to her Big City Job.  The refrigerator is full of left-overs, the kitchen is clean, and her Pop and I are stuffed.  And our hearts our full.  Thank you, Tori, for another memorable Easter, and for giving us back the gift we gave you - a holiday of your own.  Love, Mom



Monday, March 26, 2012

This Week's Happenings ...

Greetings on this crisp and sunny Monday morning! Dare we hope for Spring? I must admit that it's been rather challenging for me to adjust to coming back home after being in hot and sunny weather for the last few weeks. It is, however, good to be home! Many of you have asked about whether or not I'll be posting a web album of my Panama pics and the answer is "yes" - it'll take me a few days to put it all together, but I'll share it with you once I'm done. This week I'm cooking a couple of soup recipes from the book "Feasting in the Forest" by the late Nancy Brannon, who was both a friend a a chef mentor to me in the early years of Mon Ami. Among other things, Nancy owned the Crabby Gourmet Restaurant in Winchester Bay for many years and later on a catering business and cooking school. We worked together on several occasions and when she became ill, it was our privilege at Mon Ami to complete her catering commitments on her behalf (including a wild wedding in the Appalachian boondocks, but I'll save that story for my book!). I chose the Vellutata di Funghi and Zuppa Verde Con Polpettine (translations below) as they were such big favorites at the Brannon's Wilderness Lodge in the Rocky Mountains. Hope you enjoy them, too! Here's what's on the menu this week at Mon Ami ... Monday: Garden Vegetable Quiche; Soup: Fresh Asparagas Bisque Tuesday: Hot Roast Beef Sandwich w/Sauteed Onions & Peppers - served with au jus; Soup: Vellatata di Funghi (Cream of Mushroom) Wednesday:Mediterranean Salad w/Toasted Pita; Soup: Zuppa Verde con Polpettine (Spinach Soup with Tiny Meatballs) Thursday: Oven Roasted Chicken Sandwich w/Pesto Aolii and Provolone; Soup: Rustic Split Pea Friday: Baked Ziti Alfredo; Soup: Clam Chowder Saturday: Hot Cinnamon Sticky Buns, fresh out of the oven at 10 am! For our Take-Home Suppers this week, we're offering Oven Roasted Turkey Breast with REAL mashed potatoes and gravy on Wednesday, and on Friday we're serving Fettuccini Alfredo w/Chicken and Tossed Green Salad. Please call or email your orders in by 3 p.m. the day prior to pick-up. And finally, thank you for your loyal and enthusiastic support of my cozy little shop! It is a joy to serve you and be a part of this wonderful community! Wishing you Grace and Plenty, Cindy

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Deep and wide ...

This is my last evening in Boquete before I head onto the final leg of my journey in Panama City. Despite the fact that I've had some lovely excursions and side-trips to take photographs of the local color and culture, this has been a working trip (really!) with a daily agenda of tasks and to-do's to accomplish in a compressed amount of time for Toby and Max Jewelry. This is a company that I run in the U.S. for my friend, designer Sandy Comstock, who retired to Panama a few years ago. While we email and skype daily, we have found that nothing can quite take the place of periodic, intense, face-to-face brainstorming/design sessions. Thus, I'm heading home with a year's worth of plans and goals, designs, and marketing campaigns stuffed into my carry-on, and a renewed enthusiasm and excitement for the projects ahead.

I stopped this evening at the local Catholic church for six o'clock mass. I had visited here last year and attended their English speaking mass, which I found very touching at the time. I grew up in a pentecostal church culture that placed a lot of emphasis on evangelization and missionary work - my own parents had trained for the ministry and generously supported friends who were missionaries in Haiti. (Brother & Sister Hittenberger's pictures were taped to the door of our refrigerator for as long as I can remember. ) So I found it both touching and just a little ironic that a little Catholic mission in a little town in a third world country would care enough about a gringa like me to offer a service in my own language. The priest carefully read the scriptures and homily from a translated script, mispronouncing just about everything to the point that I barely understood him, but I loved him for his efforts and sincerity. And I was humbled. Truly.

But tonight I wanted to experience a traditional mass with the local community, so I snuck in the back (this happens a lot a my parish back home) and tried to be inconspicuous. Now this is kind of tough to do when you are the only tall white woman in the room. Wait ... make that the only white woman period. Things were different. The music was simple and joyful and sung acapella, resonating and reverberating off the beautiful marble tile floors and walls. Unlike mass at home, the priest entered from the front of the church, and then led the congregation in a slow parade throughout the interior of the sanctuary, singing beautiful Spanish songs that were unfamiliar to me. Naturally, the entire mass was in Spanish, and naturally I didn't understand a word of it. While the priest began to read the scripture, an elderly padre in the traditional plain brown tunic and rope belt of a friar, made his way to the confessional booth at the front of the sanctuary and turned on a lighted sign that I'm pretty sure said something like "open for business" or words to that effect. And throughout the remainder of the mass, little old ladies and farm workers and children quietly made their way forward to make their weekly (or daily!) confession in the privacy of a secluded little room with a neon light.

Again I was humbled. No fancy sound system. No color coordinated choir robes. No power-point presentation. No theatrical soloist with a microphone and a canned sound track. And no coffee and refreshments in the fellowship hall afterwards. Just the breaking of bread, the pouring of wine, the blessing of the body and blood, and the simple reverence and worship of a loving, multi-lingual Savior.

As I sat quietly in the back of that church, I reflected on the course of events that have occurred in my life over the last 15 years that have brought me here, a half a world away from my home and family and unscripted, demanding, crazy life. My world has deepened and widened in ways I could never have imagined and my friendships have multiplied exponentially. Colors are more vibrant and the myriad of textures around me are exquisite. My experiences have fueled my creative passions, deepened my compassion, opened doors to opportunities I previously would have missed, and given me an unwavering belief in the miraculous. Again I am humbled. And grateful.

Many years ago, when our children were toddlers, a good friend asked me to lead the children's music for our church's summer bible school. "I've got one request," she said. "Skip the whole Deep and Wide song. It's NOT scriptural. It doesn't make ANY sense. I mean, really, what the heck does 'a fountain flowing Deep and Wide' mean? REALLY?" Well, tonight, in the back of a little Panamanian Catholic church, I was reminded of the depth and width of the fountain of grace, and the true message of the gospel ... to love one another .

Deep and Wide, Deep and Wide ... they sang it in Spanish tonight. I didn't understand a word of it, but I understood every word that was said.

Peace be with you, Cindy

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Week One in Paradise!

Greetings again from the beautiful village of Boquete! It has been a busy and eventful week for us here. The weather has been lovely and we've been able to spend much of our time exploring the rainforests and outlying hillsides. I have always been fascinated by the Gnobe-Bugle Indians, and this trip I have had more opportunity to see them up close and personal. They are a very shy people and keep to themselves, but as I've ventured a little further off the beaten paths I've had an opportunity to get a closer glimpse of how they live. They are a little taken aback by the tall white woman with the sunburn and big camera - they are distrustful of gringos in general - but always respond "ola" when I greet them on my walks. It is late in the coffee picking season, but I am still seeing workers on the hillsides picking the little red berries.

Because of a diet high in starch, sugar-cane, and Coca-Cola (it is cheaper to put in their babies bottles than formula), the Indians often loose their teeth early in adulthood, so I brought with me a suitcase full of toothbrushes and personal hygiene products from Mon Ami that I delivered to a local mission that visits the Gnobe comarcas (reservations) every two weeks with food and supplies. Next trip, I hope to actually go with them.

My daughter Tori took off on a zip-lining adventure with a group of young men from Germany who are back-packing their way through Central America. I drove up the mountain to meet her guide-group and made it just in time to watch her zip down the final three lines and snap some memorable photos. I stopped so many times to take photos of the spectacular flora and fauna that I almost didn't get there in time. As I mentioned in my travel-blog on my last trip here, there are seven micro-climates in Boquete and the plant life changes in each one. (Unfortunately, due to the frequent power outages, I'm unable to download all my pics to share with you right now - very frustrating - but I'll share them on a web album once I get home.) The colors and varieties of birds is just amazing.

Those of you who know me know that travel and food go hand in hand for me, and we have enjoyed some truly magnificent meals here. This evening we dined at a lovely Peruvian restaurant, where the owner treated us to pisco sours and tender calimari. I had an amazing dinner of local sea bass stuffed with prawns - heads still on - covered with a delicate sauce flavored with traditional Peruvian spices. We've been eating lots of guacamole, fresh mango and pineapple - what a treat! I have a beautiful kitchen to cook in here and have enjoyed making daily trips to the morning market just as the farmers arrive and then coming back to cook for friends.

This afternoon I had lunch with three retired health care professionals, all American and single women , who volunteer tirelessly in the Chiriqui Province (pronounced Cheer-i-kee) to improve accessibility to medical care in the area and help introduce new protocols in pain management and hospice care. I had met two of them on my last trip to Panama and was so impressed with the work they were doing. In the year that I've been gone, they have helped local physicians establish a blood bank and emergency ambulance services, all at their own expense. They keep "office hours" in their homes and there is a steady stream of patients coming and going with injuries and illnesses that would otherwise go untreated, or treated much too late. A cut with a machete can quickly become infected here, resulting in the loss of both limb and livelihood.Rena is an 85 year old retired nurse who has turned her living room and two bedrooms into an informal clinic. I spent a couple of hours visiting with her in her home this afternoon. She lives on social security and uses her limited income to purchase medical supplies and medicinal herbs, which she then makes into compounds and tinctures. She says her patients frequently bring her rice, fry bread, fresh caught fish, eggs or vegetables they have grown as payment.

I will be driving back to David in the early hours tomorrow to take Tori to the airport for her return trip to the states. I have a few more days of work here in Boquete and then I'll head back to Panama City for a couple of days. I am hoping to visit the old part of Panama City that was built during the early years of construction on the Panama Canal and take pictures of the architecture. Thank goodness for my digital camera - if I was still shooting with film, I'd go broke!

Thank you for allowing me to share my travels with you! On this trip, I am seeing Panama with new eyes. I hope you are enjoying it with me!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dos Chicas in Panama ...

After a couple of loooooong flights and boring layovers (is there any other kind?), we landed in Panama City, breezed through customs, and walked out into a Heat Wave! I had forgotten how hot it gets here! Alfonso, our sweet Panamanian driver, met us at the gates and quickly got us loaded in the car and rushed us through downtown Panama City to Albrook, a smaller airport on the other side of the city, so that we could catch our plane to David (pronounced Duh-veed). There has been a lot of construction on the roads since I was last here, and it would have been difficult for me to have navigated without his help. The city is a mass of old and new - sleek skyscrapers and slums, streets jammed with battered taxis held together with bailing wire and duct tape, the occasional gleaming Jaguar sedan cruising alongside a "devil bus" packed to capacity with everyday people, police and armed guards standing on street corners, and garbage everywhere. Everywhere. As my ex pat friends who live here year-round like to say, T.I.P. - "This Is Panama."

It is always a turbulent, bumpy flight from PC to David, and our plane ride was no exception. We were happy to finally get our feet on the ground. Tori and I were met at the airport by friends and once our luggage passed muster with the drug-sniffing dogs, we loaded up in the car and headed up the mountain to Boquete; we will drive up about 3000 feet above sea level. The road is winding, dirty, and rough, and not one you want to travel in the dark. Finally, we come around a corner and look down into the valley at the familiar sight of Alto Boquete - a mixture of shacks and cinderblock buildings with multi-colored tin roofs, and flat stucco houses with terracotta colored tile roofs. Another mile up the hill and we arrived at our destination, unloaded the car, and promptly crawled into bed.

Our first day was spent loading up on provisions for the week. Lucky for us, it was Tuesday, when the local farmers gather at the community center to sell organically grown produce, freshly baked bread, and goat cheese. There's also a book exchange for the ex pats and Kuna Indians selling colorful molas and intricate beadwork. It seems to be the place where everyone meets and greets and catches up on the previous week's gossip and happenings. It is a hub of intense activity in a small space - I love it! We load up on fresh vegetables and herbs, some rosemary bread, and molas, then head to the tiny little market stalls in town for a REAL SLICE of local life.

I stopped to take a picture of the elderly shoe repairman with no teeth as he worked away, bent over in his tiny closet, the worn and weathered shoes of the villagers stacked up alongside the building waiting for his attention. A week ago I was happily trying on shoes at Nordstrom's in Washington Square, classical piano music playing in the background. I am acutely aware of the stark contrast of where I was a few days ago and where I am now.

The stalls are full of produce and vegetables I'm unfamiliar with, sweet smelling pineapples artfully displayed, happy little Panamanian men bantering back and forth, and bananas and plantains hanging in bundles from the ceiling alongside freshly butchered pigs.

T.I.P. ... This Is Panama, and I am happy to be back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lessons from Lasagne ...

When I was a kid, we had an old television that my dad bought from the appliance repair man up the road so that we could watch Steve Prefontaine run in the 1972 Olympics. You had to change the channels with a pair of needle-nosed pliars. We lived out in the country and got 3 channels with pretty poor reception (even with the help of some tin foil rolled up around the antenae!). Oregon Public Broadcasting, however, came in clear as a bell, and every Saturday noon I sat down with a pen and paper to watch the Queen of French Cuisine, Julia Child.

At 13, this woman FASCINATED me. Having grown up in a tee-totalling home, the idea that anyone could drink wine and cook with sharp instruments over an open flame and remain standing was, well, Outside The Box for my young and impressionable self. Julie Child cooked foods I'd never eaten. She had REALLY cool cooking utensils. And she was fearless in the kitchen. What a woman!

And so, I paid attention when she talked. I took notes. I wrote down recipes. And I practiced. Every Tuesday night, I presented a much fussed over dinner entree for my family. To their credit, my parents generously encouraged my forays into the kitchen and enthusiastically applauded my culinary flops AND successes. As my repertoire expanded, so did my confidence and my passion for food, and I began to tackle recipes that broaded my skills and my culinary horizons.

Enter "Lasagne a la Francaise" - or "French Lasagne" from Julia's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which launched me into the realm of "foodie firsts". It was the first time I cooked with safron. The first time I'd boiled wide noodles (until then, my experience with pasta had been limited to macaroni and spaghetti). The first time I'd made a bechamel sauce. The first time I'd poached chicken. The first time I met ricotta (although Julia did say I could substitute cottage cheese if I didn't have any). And ... wait for it ... the first time I COOKED WITH WINE (albeit a very salty "cooking" wine that came in a little bottle from McKay's Market with a screw-top cap - it was, technically, the FIRST TIME an alcoholic beverage crossed the threshold of my parents' pentecostal home). And the result? Success! "Lasagne a la Francaise" became MY signature dish - served with a flourish for special occasions and new boyfriends. Today, it was our featured lunch special at Mon Ami. The prep time meant I had to start on it early in the morning, but the end result was well worth the effort.

Back in The Day, my television chef mentors were limited to Julia Child and Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet (sadly, Jeff left the culinary world under a cloud of unexcusable crime, but not before he taught me to make Cauliflower Au Gratin). Under their tutelage, I fine-honed my basic skills and expanded my palette. Today, with a plethora of celebrity chefs and cooking channels to choose from, I am (understandably) in Gastric Nirvana every time I turn on the television. From them, I've learned to roll sushi, debone a chicken, make gnochi ... the list continues. And thanks to Paula Dean, I feel ABSOLUTELY NO SHAME about the amount of butter I cook with. Nothing, however, has contributed to my skill-set as a chef like the lessons I learned when I tackled my very first French Lasagne. And, in the words of Michaelangelo, an artist who most certainly mastered his craft, "still I am learning." Bon appetit!

Friday, May 7, 2010

On Motherhood

This will be my first Mother's Day childless. My 23 year old daughter Tori has taken a respite from her Big City Job and is off on another Great Adventure to explore the wilds of the Alaskan frontier, leaving me to be content with a card and assurances of her undying love and gratitude. To be frank, I'm thrilled for her and somewhat in awe of the fact that I managed to raise such an magnificent, accomplished, adventurous, and life-affirming young woman. Good for her ... and good for me!

For reasons that seemed rational at the time, I never planned on being a mother. Instead, I opted for being a godmother, an aunt, a mentor, an entrepeneur, and a philanthropist. It made for a rich and rewarding life, to be sure, but being Tori's mom has been the greatest gift of my lifetime. Hands down. No doubt about it. Take it to the bank. Put it in your pipe and smoke it (okay, that might be a bit much!).

Sometimes an unplanned life makes for the best life of all. The script I wrote for myself in my early 20's has long since been round-filed. In addition to being the mother of a remarkable human being, I am now the step-mother of 3, and grandmother of 7. I have been a single mom and a married mom, the foster mother and guardian of my niece, and a mentor to a number of young women teetering on the precipace of life's toughest choices.

So this Mother's Day, rather than sniffle into a kleenex because Herself is playing Eskimo, I'm going to tell my own mother that I love her, hug my sweet little granny, and lay flowers on the grave of the woman who gave life to My Beloved. And at the end of the day I'll breath a prayer of thanksgiving for one curly-haired bohemian with the voice of an angel and the unexpected blessings of an unplanned life.