Friday, February 27, 2009

24 Hours at Fisherman's Wharf - San Francisco

After a group tour through Sonoma, I gifted myself one day of solo time in the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood. With only 24 hours on the clock before I returned to the airport, I arrived at the Best Western Tuscan Inn, where the valets looked like gondola pilots in their black and white horizontal-striped shirts and black straw hats. The hotel lobby resembled a casual and cozy Italian manor, with a rear window that looked out on a multi-level terrace full of potted flowers and greenery, and small trees. A sign reminded guests about the free happy hour offered every evening, and I vowed to return from my adventures in time to socialize.

I put on my warmest jacket against the February chill, and set out on foot. The smell of salt water, and uncharacteristically blue winter sky, lifted my spirits. I explored Pier 39 and then headed to the other end of the Wharf where I met a writing acquaintance and S.F. resident, for a private wine tasting at a new wine store. Fueled by great food and drink, I returned to the streets with stops at Ghirardelli, Boudin Sourdough and several other food purveyors.

As the sun set I walked briskly towards the hotel again, where I joined a large crowd of ruddy faced guests before a roaring fire, still wearing fleece and scarves as they sipped wine and munched on freshly made bruschetta. Conversation flowed as it often does in a room full of strangers without agendas or previous connections and I found myself talking with a couple visiting from Ireland.

Before we knew it Jackie and I had talked for nearly an hour beyond the last guest's departure. Only then did I realize how good my comfy bed and soft pillow sounded.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beachside Buffet

I bet when you read the name of this post you thought that I would figuratively whisk you off to some Caribbean island. On the contrary, this beach was in our living room last weekend - and still is because I find it tough to give up. But the plastic leis and honeycomb paper parrot and fish mobile have been stashed away until next year, and most of the leftover food is gone.

The occasion? Our 12th Annual Winter Doldrums Party, which is our attempt to snub our noses at Midwestern winter weather for one night, every February. But this was the first time I thought to overturn the unattached top of our coffee table, fill it with five pounds of sand and arrange my shell collection and candles across it. Definitely a cheap 'keeper' for decor at future parties.

One nice thing about having an annual party is that you learn what recipes work well from year to year, while making adjustments for a little variety. Sometimes, though, you've used a recipe so many times that you think you know it by rote and so don't recheck how it's written.

Such was the case this year, with the Rum and Lime Sauce for Melon Balls (Three Rivers Cookbook, 1973). A crowd pleaser since our second or third party, the original recipe involves a little cooking and some sugar. This year, I inadvertantly put lime juice and rind and rum in a measuring cup and then simply poured it over the melon. The taste ended up fresher and lighter!
Some party fare was as simple as blue corn chips with black bean dip and guacamole, or shrimp with dipping sauces. One of our fave shrimp dips is Creamy Cilantro Sauce - an ancient recipe from our local newspaper. To a mayonnaise base, you add lemon juice, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, green onion and lots of cilantro leaves, with salt and cayenne to taste.
Polynesian Meatballs joined our list of favorites about five years ago (Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book, 1996). To lean ground beef you add egg, bread crumbs, cilantro or parsley, garlic, red pepper, chopped peanuts, and a little salt. They're baked and brushed with sweet and sour sauce.

We've got other favorites too, tho' the camera doesn't always cooperate when I'm rushing a bit while also trying to play hostess. They include Teriyaki Chicken served with Thai Peanut Sauce (sauce from This Place Called Home, A Kansas City Cookbook, 1998), and Summer Vegie Skewers from another ancient newspaper page (see recipe below).

But the best part of this party is how much fun we have hosting our friends from all walks of life, including work acquaintances, neighbors, parents of our daughter's public school friends and - this year - one of my high school buddies (and his lovely wife) who I reacquainted with last spring through Facebook, 35 years after we last saw each other.

And, of course, we get to escape winter's grip for one night, every February.

Summer Vegie Skewers

Serves 6-8

For the marinade:

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup cry white wine

1/4 cup finely chopped basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (VOE - may substitute dried rosemary, but not the powder)

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 ears corn, husks removed (VOE - since there's rarely fresh corn available at this time of year, we use frozen/thawed corn on the cob)

4 medium-sized zucchini (about 1/2 pound each), ends trimmed

8 ripe plum tomatoes (VOE - we long ago substituted cherry tomatoes for these, and pierce them with a toothpick so the marinade can penetrate them)

Combine marinade ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Cut the corn and zucchini into 2-inch lengths. Halve the plum tomatoes crosswise. Add all of the vegetables to the marinade and toss well. Set aside to marinate for 4 hours, at room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Thread each of eight 12-inch skewers with a piece of corn, zucchini, tomato half, zucchini, tomato half, corn. Grill the skewers over hot coals, 3 inches from heat source, for 5 minuts on each of 4 sides or until the vegetables are cooked through, basting with any remaining marinade. Serve immediately, garnished with rosemary sprigs.

(VOE - we began to cook each vegie on separate skewers many years ago, because of their differing cooking times. This year my grill-master husband cooked the corn directly on the grill rack and tossed the others in a special grill top pan with air holes throughout. The results were terrific.)

For more of these recipes, contact me at

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Above It All - San Francisco's Coit Tower

During 5th and 6th grade my family lived in Walnut Creek, CA, a suburb of Oakland. On rare occasions, we crossed the bay to San Francisco, such as seeing the premiere of the Sound of Music on Mother's Day, or enjoying lunch in Chinatown with our Girl Scout troop. Coit Tower always intrigued me as it stood high above the pulsing city, but I never had a chance to visit.

When I visited Fisherman's Wharf last February, I was still on a tight schedule with no time to stop by the tower. However, at 9 a.m. on a chilly winter day, the 210-foot-tall structure still towered above the urban landscape to the east. Poised atop the 285-foot-tall Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower was clearly visible in the early morning light, surrounded by hills full of steep walkways and pastel-painted cottages.

But the next time I visit San Francisco, I'll finally make my way up Telegraph Hill, where visitors can see a 360-degree view of the City by the Bay including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the famed curves of Lombard Street. The tower was commissioned by local philanthropist, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, in honor of fire fighters who battled blazes that resulted from the 1906 earthquake. The tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, also offers a history museum, and murals that depict Depression-era working class life in California.
Seventy-five years after it was erected, Coit Tower remains a picture postcard favorite and a San Francisco icon.