Obviously, it's what I do. And trust me, it's as much a comfort for me as I hope it is for the person on the receiving end. So at a time when Margaret's heart just isn't into producing a healthy, soul-satisfying meal, I've got her back.
Last Tuesday, for instance, I'd picked up one of Mom's favorite vegetables, zucchini.
While a handful of chopped onions and garlic caramelized in a puddle of sizzling olive oil I sliced the tender squash into thin rounds and set them aside, along with a chunk of roasted chicken.
Once the skillet contents sported a golden blush I splashed in a bit of Marsala, chicken broth, and balsamic vinegar, then goosed the temperature upward to thicken the sauce while I heated some water for pasta.
After a handful of rottini was dropped into the simmering water I added some diced tomatoes to the skillet, along with the zucchini and chicken, plopped on the lid and let the simple little sauce collect itself while I hunted down glasses of wine for me and my peanut gallery.
My peanut gallery. It's become a familiar phrase here in my parents' kitchen. But I'll get back to that.
First, at a time of year when we celebrate family, a word of thanks must be issued for all that Mom and Dad have given over the years. Most especially their willingness to share their later years with Steve and me here in town.
They made the move from the San Francisco Bay Area back in 2002, when Mom was 78 and my Dad was approaching 80.
There had been much lobbying on my part for the six years leading up to this monumental shift in the balance of family. If they jumped, it would be: Four of us "Up Here," and all the rest "Down There" (and all over the country).
I knew what I was asking. Such a huge leap of faith on their part: leaving their Burlingame home of 54 years -- the house my brother and I grew up in, the epicenter to so much joy; where grandchildren and other precious relatives visited and dear friends gathered around our dinner table.
Margaret and Will Roberts have always loved entertaining. And it came easily. As did friends and family, all welcome, even the unexpected walk-ins.
Once my parents were re-established in their beautiful new Corvallis home, all family and friends from beyond have flowed through their door, as I knew they would.
And what wonderful times we've seen -- thanks to what I call the Margaret & Will Magnet.
Late autumn visitors know to pack multiple layers of fleece to survive the invigorating picnics at the Buchanan Family Century Farm and Tyee Winery, where hearty attitudes are rewarded with a big pot of my beer-cheese soup and a breathtaking view of the vineyard and hazelnut orchards.
Summer visitors are treated to picnics in the coast range at Fort Hoskins, salmon barbecues and more wine touring and picnics at our other winery haunts -- dog-friendly Airlie, people- friendly Lumos and friendly-friendly Harris Bridge.
The Roberts kitchen is open and lovely, so naturally, at a point when I was taping cooking segments for a Portland television program, we filmed in it. As host Mike Darcy and I, along with his producer and camera man carried on, Mom and Dad would plant themselves off-camera on the couch, my encouraging peanut gallery.
As I said, it was a leap of faith for them to leave everything behind -- childhood friends, strong adult friendships, Stanford football and a familiar way of life. But the years that followed have been rich, and I know how blessed that makes me.
Too many daughters and sons don't get the opportunity to enjoy their parents at this stage. It's been a glorious run.
Certainly, families are not perfect. Plus, we expect more from them than we do of our neighbors and friends. They come with challenges and frustrations to be sure, but also with unconditional love and lessons galore.
And it's always this time of year when I ache the most for one more family dinner surrounded by my loud, lively and oh-so-loving relatives now gone.
Impossible, yes. But at the very least I can give thanks: to those who remain; for the love and nurturing that enveloped me during my life; and for the desire to pay it forward. Hence, the simple little dinner of chicken and zucchini that's really not so simple after all.
Potato cheese and beer soup
1 quart chicken broth (homemade or canned)
21/2 pounds potatoes, unpeeled, coarsely chopped
2 cups chopped green onions, whites and about half the green stalks
1 quart light cream
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
6 ounces shredded Swiss cheese
6 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup craft beer (preferably an amber style or nut brown style, such as Rogue's Hazelnut Brown Ale), dry white wine or dry sherry (or extra chicken broth)
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft. Add the green onions and remove the pot from the heat. Add the half-and-half or milk to the pot.
Puree the potato-broth mixture in a blender or food processor (you will have to do this in batches; when blending, fill the container only half full and cover the lid with a dish towel because the soup "spurts" quite violently as it's being blended). Return the puree to the pot. Stir in the soy sauce and pepper and slowly bring the soup back to a simmer.
NOTE: the soup can be prepared to this point up to 48 hours ahead and refrigerated, or prepared and frozen for 3 months.
When ready to serve or pack into a thermos, proceed with the recipe by placing the pot back on the burner, over medium heat. When the soup begins to simmer, stir in the grated cheeses gradually, a hand-full at a time. Now gently whisk in the beer, wine, or sherry (or extra broth).
Yields about 8 servings.
Mashed Yukon golds with caramelized onions and wonderful things
1 large yellow onion
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup half & half
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled (or not; or partially peeled)
11/2 teaspoons salt
To prepare the onion, cut it in half lengthwise from stem to root end. Trim off stem and root ends and peel. Place the onion halves on a cutting board, cut-side down and slice into 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut each half ring into half again. Cut enough onion pieces to measure 2 cups.
Place the prepared onion in a medium-sized heavy-bottom pot with the butter over medium heat. Cook the onion in the butter until it softens and turns a pale gold, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to low.
Meanwhile, cut the potatoes into 2- to 3-inch sized pieces of fairly uniform size for even cooking. Place them in a large pot with enough water to cover. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
While the potatoes are cooking, add the half & half to the butter and onion mixture and bring it just to a boil. Turn off the heat and set the mixture aside.
When the potatoes are tender, drain well into a colander. Return the potatoes to the pot and mash with a potato masher. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and continue mashing to mix in the salt. Stir in most of the hot cream, butter and onions and combine. The potatoes may seem too thin at this point, but you'll notice that they soon thicken. Add additional cream/butter mixture to reach desired consistency. Add additional salt, if desired.
More Stuff!: Other things to stir into your potatoes include grilled corn kernels, roasted peppers, roasted garlic cloves, smokey bacon, blue cheese, extra-aged Gouda.
Makes servings for 6.
Margaret's orange glazed hazelnuts
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup firmly packed golden brown sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups lightly roasted and skinned hazelnuts (see note)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Spread a large sheet of parchment or waxed paper out onto a heat-proof surface large enough to hold all of the nuts after they have roasted.
In a heavy-bottomed medium-sized pot, over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the brown sugar and corn syrup. Bring the mixture just barely to a boil, then remove the pot from the burner and stir in the orange extract and the salt. With a silicon spatula, stir in the hazelnuts, making sure that they all get evenly coated with the syrup.
Scrape the nuts and all of the syrup onto a rimmed baking sheet, spreading them out into a single layer. Bake on the center rack for about 20 to 30, stirring about every 5 to 7 minutes with the wide spatula or dough scraper each time, so they remain evenly coated with the syrup.
Depending on your oven the time will vary, so just be watchful. As the syrup gets thicker, it will bubble and foam around the nuts. Just keep stirring and spreading them out in a single layer after each stir. When the nuts have reached a lovely golden brown and the syrup is thick and clinging to them, remove from oven and scrape/pour them out onto the prepared surface to cool. While they are hot, spread them apart as much as you can (you will still have some that insist on remaining in clumps) so they don't touch each other as they cool. It's not a tragedy if some stick together; they break apart very easily once they have cooled.
That's it. When the nuts are completely cool, store them in an airtight container.
Makes 3 cups.
To roast and skin hazelnuts: Spread the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in a 350 degree oven until they become very fragrant and the skins are beginning to brown. Test a single nut by removing it from the oven and rubbing off the skin (careful, it will be hot!); the nut should be slightly golden. Remove from oven and let cool.
To skin you could either pour the nuts into a large towel and rub the skins off or do what I do: Place the nuts in a plastic container with tight-fitting lid and shake like crazy until the skins are abraded away. Pour onto a baking sheet, then step outside and blow away the papery skins.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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