Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Going Local on the Road

The low ceilings of Ye Olde Castle and Antique Emporium in Burns, OR,  drip with antique toys, and every wall, nook, and cranny is festooned with items of charm and/or weirdness. Delightful!
It's sooo easy to slide into a Red Lion or a Hyatt or a Motel 6 or whatever motel/hotel clone appears on your travel route. You know what to expect. It'll be clean. You'll have WiFi and probably a big-screen TV. There'll be a predictable "free" breakfast that, if you're lucky, will include a bit of protein to share your styrofoam plate with massive carbs. Ditto the road food. You know what's goin' down at Apple Cellar, Shari's, and if you're in a desperate hurry, MacDonald's. The chains are easy hits along the main thoroughfares, but the local gems are hidden.

Not anymore.  Got a smartphone? That's all it takes. That and a mindset that prefers adventure over all-the-same on the road. Delicious regionalism exists, despite a huge effort at national homogenization and Big Brand blanketing. The little hide-aways and pockets of eccentrics wishing to sell their wares and offer you a bed and a hot shower exist everywhere. All you have to do is want to find them and recognize that the journey can be as fun as the destination. 

On a recent trip to western Wyoming, the skiing diehards, to their credit, decided that we'd have nothing but local food and lodging on our return trip to Southern Oregon. Four of them in one vehicle, equipped with smart phones in search mode, checked out the Yelp! and tripadvisor picks along the way to select our culinary and slumber sites. It was good. Very good.

Consider Ye Olde Castle in Burns, OR, which we've passed maybe 20 times over the years without even considering stopping. It looks like a wreck, a dive, lost in the 1950s without a facelift. It looked so unpromising, as did all the other cafes the Diehards rejected as they searched Burns for breakfast, with PK and I bumping over curbs and through alleys as we followed. The Diehards even touched down in the Apple Cellar parking lot, but after 10 seconds, roared off, back to Ye Olde Castle.
Here it is, in all its un-glory,  on Hwy. 20, the main drag through Burns.
The wooden walkway was frayed and creaky, paint flaked from the walls, and I thought, Ok, here we go! Me of little faith. But the place captured me. A round table near the entry was populated with old guys in bib overalls, a sure sign of local approval. Then there were the toys and bicycles and antiques and paintings converging into the aisles. This decor would never pass muster in a chain restaurant.

Items are artlessly displayed but were collected with love. And dust.

Here's Roxanne, the dishwasher, cook and waitress. She's worked here for 30 years and now
lives in quarters above the restaurant. She told us about the resident ghosts and
the phantom crying baby.  Would she be happy working at Denny's? No way.
Ye Olde Castle's breakfast was OK. Typical fare that you would expect at a chain,  except that one in our party scored a six-egg omelette, and I was thrilled with an Atkins' breakfast of eggs, bacon/sausage and low-carb toast. It wasn't the food that scored the reviews and pledges to return, however, it was the bicycle room dividers and the copper-plated prints en route to the restroom and on and on. Ye Olde Castle is not yet reviewed on Yelp! or tripadvisor. Just go there if passing through Burns.

Burns yielded other discoveries:
The Silver Spur Motel, $42 per night with "cowboy hospitality,"  was clean and featured some cool old timey Western decor and knotty pine walls. If you pulled the curtain back in the bathroom, you could see the "backside" of Burns just one street off the main drag: dilapidated houses, scruffy lots, and junky vehicles. The economy has been particularly hard on rural Oregon. 

But the best thing about the Silver Spur was it's walking-distance proximity to a great surprise gourmet restaurant, Rhojos. My five-star review on tripadvisor:
Wow! Great food and service, reasonable prices. Surprising gourmet quality in rural Oregon. Everything fresh and carefully created. Loved it!
If you're ever passing through Burns, Oregon, don't miss it! Chef Michel Johnson is a culinary wizard working on a four-burner electric stove in a non-gourmet-looking kitchen in full view.  It's all part of the restaurant's charm and local flavor.

Back in Wyoming, we ventured down from the Grand Targhee ski resort into the Teton Valley for dinner at the Knotty Pine Supper Club. The Knotty Pine, as its name suggests, is an old-fashioned restaurant with a dark wooden interior and rich smoky aromas. It also turns out to be a popular venue for traveling big-name bands—Galactic played there in March.  After one meal, it's easy to see why the place draws a crowd. It specializes in house-cured meats and seasonal offerings that include buffalo and elk sausage pasta with garlic, tomatoes, red wine and herbs; and kurobuta pork chops stuffed with chevre and bacon over sweet pea risotto. PK and I shared an excellent warm cabbage salad flavored with pancetta, pecans, garlic, and gorgonzola, a dish that warrants trying to duplicate at home.

My delicious dinner at the Knotty Pine Supper Club in Victor, Idaho. Half a side of house-cured hickory-smoked BBQ ribs, a few veggies, and the biggest serving of the best onion rings ever.
Photo was taken AFTER numerous onion rings were swiped by my companions.

Next up, lunch in Pocatello, Idaho. A Yelp! search yielded the Butterburr, which was not that convenient to the freeway, but then, we weren't in a hurry. Were we? This place is a mom and pop restaurant that serves enormous portions. For a carb-avoider, it wasn't a great choice. I got a Cobb salad that was, to be generous, dismal. But others were pleased with homemade noodle soups, burgers, and scones accompanied by whipped butter with powdered sugar. This is the type of restaurant that contributes mightily to the infamous girth of about two-thirds of the USA population. Yet it gets great Yelp! and tripadvisor reviews and beats the chains. 

I've been back home long enough to enjoy my two local favorites in Rogue River, OR:
The Station and Paisano's Italian Kitchen. There's no place like home. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friends for Life? It Takes Time. And Effort.

L to R, the Wimer Women: Linda, Nona, Annie, Jeanne, ,JoAnne, Margaret, Michele, Betty 
I enjoyed a spirit-renewing weekend recently with eight "old" girlfriends. By "old" I mean women with whom I've been friends since when PK and I, in our twenties, landed in Southern Oregon. I met the first of them early on when we were both substitute teachers and carelessly disguised hippies in a conservative logging community. We recognized a kindred spirit when we saw her!

During the next five-or-so years, the others drifted into our shared geography—coming from California, mostly.  We all lived near Wimer, just a dot on the map eight miles east of I-5. It was in the 1970s, and is now, a loosely organized community of old-time farming and ranching families and newcomers on their five-acres of Southern Oregon paradise. Most of us lived on small acreages in the boonies, five to 15 miles from the nearest town. We had gardens, and chickens, ducks, pigs, horses, cattle, and goats were not uncommon. Neither were outhouses, propane stoves, wood heat, and long, rutted dirt driveways. PK and I lived closer to Rogue River in a burnt out trailer. The trailer is gone, but we haven't budged from the land.

Most of us built homes and live now exactly where we landed, or not far away. Many of us still heat with wood and get our water from wells. We share, or have shared, country life in a beautiful part of the world never more than a half hour from wilderness. That says something about how and why we connected. We love digging in the dirt, walking in the woods, hunting herbs, wildflowers and mushrooms, rafting rivers, and gazing at the night sky from a wilderness camp—or our own backyards. We ain't city people.

So much happened over the next nearly 40 years. Nothing unusual, really. We had children—some gave joy; others pain equal with pleasure. Some husbands philandered. One treasured child died. (Still makes my heart skip and stomach plummet.) Divorce and disease took their tolls. A dear friend died.

We partied, celebrated and grieved as families. As "just women," we did wilderness hiking trips and impromptu walks on Super Bowl Sundays. Later, it was wild and scenic whitewater rafting on the Rogue River. We shared so much, including some of our best years as young adults.

Then we drifted apart. The demands of jobs, kids, husbands, and other obligations created distance, even though all but a few of us still live in the same telephone prefix. We made other friends connected to work, church, whatever. We grew in different directions. We got too busy. Two of us moved away. (One could not make it to the gathering.) The other was the catalyst for this remarkable weekend of gut-level reconnection.

Her name is JoAnne, and she knows how to make friends and keep them. Keep us.
JoAnne on the Rogue River trail.
She moved out of this area in 1982—30 years ago! First it was Alaska, then Seattle, now Port Townsend, WA. Most people who relocate make new friends, get a new life, and leave the past behind. Not JoAnne.

Periodically throughout the years, she's made the effort to DRIVE here from wherever to reconnect. Each time she has skipped from friend to friend to spend an afternoon or a night or just meet for a chat over coffee or wine. We've had group dinners and a hike or two.  She repeatedly made the effort. It was not small.
Hiking the Rogue River trail with the Wimer Women.
It's taken me awhile to recognize what she's done, and this past weekend, I appreciated her more than I can express. She contacted me months ago saying she wanted to visit in April and this time, she would love to spend a weekend with everybody all at once rather than piecemeal. Could I help put something together? She listed the people she wanted to include. I hadn't seen some of these women since the last time JoAnne visited, and although I had mixed feelings about a whole weekend,  I booked a vacation rental on the river not far from Grants Pass.

We hiked (on the only nice day in two weeks!) to Whiskey Creek
on the Rogue River trail.

JoAnne's vision for our time together didn't end with us arriving at the same place at the same time and just letting the chips fall. She asked that we all do a "check in" to report our individual  emotional, spiritual, and practical status. Without going into detail that might violate extravagant and wonderfully shocking secrets, the weekend was a peak experience and a lesson in the joy of long-standing yet still-developing friendships.

Nona and Margaret enjoy the Limpy Creek Botanical Area not far
from our weekend retreat.

Without a high-paid facilitator or an agenda, we explored our shared and individual territories with humor, insight, compassion, and love. This took HOURS. Hours that flew like the years that have disappeared since we all met so many years ago. Our  vacation rental lacked media. We weren't distracted by computers, phones, TV, radio or music. We were unplugged from the outside world but connected on deep levels of shared memories, common values. We drew strength from the well of the past—and the power of the future.

See the blue phone? That represents Cat, the woman who couldn't make it.
She did a "check-in" from Northeastern Oregon.
The point is that without someone initiating this remarkable weekend, it wouldn't have happened. Those of us who still live just miles from one another would have continued on our mostly separate paths in ever-widening circles away from the centering value of our friendships.

Keeping friendship alive takes effort. Thank you, JoAnne. And for so many beloved friends from long-ago and the more recent past, expect to hear from me soon. I've been reminded of how much you mean to me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Low carb. No wheat! Spinach/Pesto Frittata

Two eggs, tons of fresh spinach,  a little feta and pesto. Yum! Good for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
I'm reading a book that's pushing me beyond low-carb nutrition toward life without wheat. (I know that some friends who have endured my ravings about carbs will now be girding their loins against coming assaults on wheat. Don't worry. I'm low on the learning curve, but it IS looking like wheat-free reinforces all the low carb premises—and promises. And then some.*)

The book is Wheat Belly by cardiologist William Davis, MD and published by Rodale. It was a NY Times bestseller in 2011, but it escaped my attention. Now, however, it has me seriously thinking. There's a lot of obnoxious hype on some sites trying to sell this book. It is, after all, promising weight loss. I'm a lot more interested in the longterm health implications*, although, of course, I could stand to lose a few pounds. 

The way of eating proposed by Dr. Davis differs from the low-carb life I adopted almost 10 years ago in that it is WAY more low-carb. In my "maintenance" state, I've fudged on grains by eating low-carb tortillas made from oat fiber, wheat, soy, almond meal and sesame flour.  Only 4 net carbs and 7 grams of fiber. Virtuous! They've been a mainstay. I have also become accustomed to toasted organic sprouted grain bread, net 13 carbs, a few times a week. Although I adopted numerous other breakfasts, I never quite got over toast slathered with peanut butter and cream cheese.  I'm going to have to get over it after reading this damn book. A dear friend, recently reconnected via Facebook, turned me on to "no wheat" and essentially no grains. She wrote:
Turns out the oats and oat bran I was eating every morning (1/2 cup) were the carb that was causing me to have huge blood sugar spikes resulting in debilitating episodes of hypoglycemia every day for the past 20 years. No oats=no spikes. I don't eat any grains anymore, either. After reading 'Wheat Belly' I will never eat wheat again. Coming from someone who was a pastry chef and avid baker of things wheat for 40 years, that's saying a mouthful.
A super-creative cook, Grace also mentioned some of the great creations she uses to replace the oats. I'm hoping she'll share recipes to pass along. How about that homemade sausage using garden herbs, Grace? And the egg cups lined with prosciutto  and filled with asparagus, cream and goat cheese? We're waiting.

In the meantime, the Wheat Belly book sparked an idea for something easy and delicious using frozen pesto cubes,* which happen to be in abundance in my freezer.  This recipe is for one person. Adjust for however many you're feeding.

If you're using pesto with cheese already in it, don't add it until the spinach is wilted and the eggs are nearly cooked. Directions for using prepared pesto are in red.

Spinach, Pesto and Feta Frittata

1 pesto cube* without cheese, thawed, or a tablespoon of prepared pesto 
2-3 eggs
2-3 generous handfuls of fresh spinach
feta cheese to taste
1 tbsp olive oil (if using pesto with cheese)

Over medium heat in a nonstick skillet, add the spinach and cover until wilted. If using a pesto cube,  mix with the wilted spinach.
If using pesto with cheese already in it, add olive oil to the spinach and mix.
Crack eggs over the spinach/pesto and break yolks. Season with salt and pepper. Stir gently  to cook the eggs. 
When eggs are nearly done, add prepared pesto, if using, and mix gently.
 Sprinkle feta over the egg, spinach, pesto mix and cover. Remove from heat until feta is warmed through. It never hurts to add a sprinkle of hot pepper flakes and a dash of smoked paprika. 

*Health benefits of wheat-free diet 

*Making pesto cubes at home

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taking Stock. Making Soup.

Creamy soup made with last summer's canned  tomatoes,  a pesto "cube" etc.
Simple and delicious recipe below.
I had a reality check recently as my dwindling list of rainy-day activities led me to take stock of what remains from the 2011 harvest. In a word: plenty. We have a small chest freezer, and its bottom quarter has not seen daylight for months. Ditto the pantry, where home-canned and dried goods are stashed, along with a box of still-perfect onions (!) a few heads of deteriorating garlic, and bags and boxes of fragrant richly colored dried peppers. More than enough. Ridiculous excess!

In a world with so much hunger and need, this is embarrassing. Two people—it seems we could feed the world, or at least the neighborhood. We need to share more and also get a grip on garden quantity, unless we decide to supply our larger community. In the meantime, we are loaded with everything tomato and enough beets to supply an army of borscht-starved Ukrainians. Thus I developed a menu plan to plumb the depths of our stores during the coming weeks (days?) when the Adventuring Son will be home for a visit. I shall strive to replenish any caloric deficit that he may have developed during his four months in Africa and a couple weeks in Brazil.

I think he goes to sleep hungry sometimes, not that that would be unusual for the native people in the far-away and exotic and sometimes dangerous places he finds himself. (Do you know anybody who has illegally camped, unprotected, on a river beach in a tiger reserve in India alongside huge paw prints? I do.)
Chris and his exploring/adventuring/risk-taking pals sometimes go for days with only what they can carry in their kayaks, and villages along the waterways don't always have food to share or sell. I know he's gotten by on candy bars and skinny dried fish, full of bones. So big mama here enjoys cooking up a storm when he occasionally alights on home turf.

Coming soon, all including remains of the 2011 harvest:
  • Jambalaya
  • Chili
  • Lasagne
  • Eggplant Parmesan
  • Rama Shower - Thai curry dish, which uses a huge amount of spinach plus the peanut sauce in the freezer
  • Borscht (beets, beets, beets!)

Then: young beets happy in the sun and soil.
Now: frozen beets wondering what the hell?
And there I go again, anthropomorphizing food!
I'm sure I'll revisit the simple tomato soup I made in a big hurry after I discovered how many canned tomatoes we have! I'd call it tomato bisque, but I've learned that "bisque" applies primarily to fish-based creamy soups. (Dang it, Wikipedia!) So instead, let's call this—ta da!

Creamy Tomato Delight Soup
1 quart canned whole tomatoes, preferably home-grown
1 medium onion, cut into quarters
1 large celery stalk, cut into 2-inch lengths
4 ounces cream cheese or sour cream (or more)
1 heaping Tbsp pesto (one pesto cube)*
salt and pepper to taste
ground pepper flakes to taste
Top with grated Parmesan cheese or dollop of sour cream, if desired.

Liquify the canned tomatoes in food processor and dump into a sauce pan. Add cut-up onion and celery. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer for 30-45 minutes til onion and celery are soft. With a slotted spoon, remove onion and celery. Reduce the soup if it seems too watery. Add the basil cube, or pesto. Add the cream cheese. (May substitute sour cream). Mix with an immersion blender til smooth. Do not boil after cream cheese or pesto is added, if the pesto includes cheese.
Season. Serve with grated cheese and pepper flakes.

*About pesto cubes below.