Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cub Scouts

Since his birth, I have had a terrible time trying to light a fire under The Boy’s little rump. He just doesn’t get excited about anything -- other than video games and watching movies. Then at the beginning of 2nd grade we found Cub Scouts. He loves it. He enjoys going to the meetings, fulfilling his Requirements, attending the monthly evening family events, the overnights, the camping trips, Rocket Day, the Pinewood Derby, Bobby Crocker, even the days we walk a neighborhood hanging pamphlets on front doors.

Last weekend we went to Bridging. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cub Scouts that is the last family meeting before summer break when the Tigers become Wolves, the Wolves become Bears, and the Bears become Webelo 1s. I was excited because I thought everyone from The Boy’s den would be crossing the bridge too but soon realized that since they are already Webelo 1s that there is no Bridging to Webelo 2. The next Bridging for them will be to Boy Scouts next February at the Blue and Gold Dinner. Mama is not ready for this. This means her boy is closer to middle school. Closer to high school! Closer to driving!! Closer to voting!!! Closer to college!!!! Closer to gone!!!!! (get a grip, mama.)

The Boy receiving his badges and pins at Camp Coombs in Napa, May 2012.
(Please notice the wine barrel stave fire poker on the rock wall just left of front and center.
That's how prevalent they are around here.) 

After a really good potluck dinner (I know; that should be an oxymoron but it was good!) everyone was seated around the campfire and the meeting portion of the evening was underway. The next thing I knew, my name was called and I was asked to come forward to be recognized for being a Committee Member and the Scouting With Santa Fundraiser Chair. Immediately after, The Captain was asked to come forward for his role as Committee Member and Camping/Overnight Chair… and as being in charge of Rocket Day (which we didn’t know, hmmm). Several others soon joined us. Now, we knew we held these positions -- well, except for The Captain’s Rocket Day Leader -- what we weren’t expecting was the recognition. I’m not a shy person, ask anyone who knows me; however, I was taken aback and so was The Captain, who not only doesn’t expect but doesn’t want any recognition. We thought our participation was no more than what others do. Apparently, we thought wrong. It was nice. I’ll be the first to admit that I like applause. And I think that is another thing that The Boy likes about Cub Scouts because they are awarded their badges and pins in front of the entire Pack and all the parents. Applause is good for the ego no matter how old you are.

In the car one afternoon while running errands, The Boy and I were talking about who his role models are and immediately after mentioning several family members, he talked about his Cub Scout Den Leaders, then his teachers and one lady from church. I think that says bunches about his experience. 

Cub Scouts has been amazing for our entire family, not just The Boy. We have made friends with families we wouldn’t have otherwise met. We have also become closer with people we already knew through The Boy’s school. At Bridging, we realized that in less than a year our little Cubby will be moving on to Boy Scouts. That means we’ll miss some of those wonderful people but it’s nice to know there are still good families in this big, scary world and we look forward to meeting some more of them.

By the way, I have yet another pile of laundry that needs folding among other tidbits around the house and someone is coming over in half an hour. Gotta run!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Food Transgressions

Homemade Ranch and Vinaigrette
Last weekend was a bit out of control in regard to food. It started Thursday with The Captain’s from-scratch brownies, which I’ve heard several people describe erotically. One friend whose husband is a pastry chef says they’re the best brownies she’s ever eaten. Needless to say, I ate one; yes, only one because the rest were designated for a Scout function and a fishing trip. Then on Friday my dear cousin and her family were driving up unexpectedly from the South Bay Area and we were all invited for pizza at my aunt and uncle’s, after which they offered low fat ice cream. I had two slices of pizza and about a third of a cup of ice cream and salad (not necessarily in that order).

The next morning I found myself alone with my refrigerator and the leftovers of a crazy good coconut chicken curry and basmati rice I had made two nights before. I ate the rice telling myself I’d have just one small bowl, which turned into two… with a bit of butter on each. You cannot have rice without butter. Period.

On the way home from the overnight Scouting event, The Captain stopped at Chipotle for a salad and brought one home for me as well. I usually order the vegetarian version because I don’t need the meat and its calories and saturated fat plus I like their pinto beans; besides the vegetarian one comes with guacamole so I don’t have to pay an extra $1.90 for it. However, The Captain remembered me ordering the barbacoa once so that’s what he brought home. I’m not complaining, mind you. He couldn’t get a hold of me and could have, thus, brought me nothing. I was grateful for the salad. And, as always, I can only eat half of their food because there’s so much on the plate. So, add half a barbacoa salad with brown rice, pinto beans, cheese, and lots of salsa... but no guac.

That afternoon our neighbor came down and invited us to their house for dinner and would we bring a salad and bread? No problem. I make a great salad (my brother is shaking his head and murmuring, "there she goes again complimenting her own cooking"). Loads of veggies: mixed greens, fresh herbs, tomatoes, cucumber, red bell pepper, avocado, plus feta, nuts or seeds, dried fruit… and this time I forsook my homemade vinaigrette for homemade ranch dressing (recipes below). To my credit (thank you, thank you very much), I used nonfat Greek yogurt instead of sour cream -- but full-fat mayo. Then all the dressing wouldn’t fit into the container I wanted to use so I put the rest in a wee bowl with a bit more from the container. We used it as dip for the large bag of Kettle chips we had purchased for the fishing trip, which had subsequently been canceled due to high winds and the salmon were no longer biting. The guide said he didn’t feel right about taking our money (nice, right?).

Then there’s the issue of the bread. The Captain and I went to Whole Foods but being a Saturday of a busy tourist weekend, it was slim pickins’. So we tried Trader Joe’s, which is almost next door. However, we had to stop at Pete’s Coffee on the way for a decaf iced latte (no sweetener but probably whole milk because I forgot to ask for something lighter). Nothing at TJ’s was any too inspiring either. Next and last, we went to our neighborhood gourmet grocery, Vallerga’s. We should have gone there first and had intended to but our car just drove itself over to get real in the Whole Foods parking lot. Sure enough, Vallerga’s had exactly what we were looking for. So The Captain took it home and made garlic bread -- with a whole stick of butter, many cloves of garlic, and some rosemary from the garden. I ate two pieces. Also for dinner I had a few bites of lamb, a slice of chicken breast, salad, three grilled asparagus spears, and a dozen artichoke leaves Rutherford Grill style with aioli... plus a half a cup of chocolate ice cream, not just a few of those potato chips, cucumbers, and dip, and a couple of Tecates… (over the course of about four hours – not all at one sitting, people.)

I am absolutely positive there were the odd leftover brownie, piece of dark chocolate, trail mix, handful of walnuts, and other tidbits mixed in over the weekend but who can remember all that??? Thus ended my food transgressions. I am back to sanity. However, I’ve gained two pounds for my efforts. grrr. On the upside, my laundry is done… but my kitchen floor is becoming its own ecosystem. Nice segue to --

Homemade Garlic Ranch Dressing
I really dislike store-bought salad dressings. There are very few that don't have that weird, acrid flavor, especially bottled Ranch and Blue Cheese dressings. I haven't purchased it for at least ten years because I swear I can taste the preservatives -- and they don't taste good! For many years I made the powdered Ranch which was better but then I found a recipe that had ingredients I could pronounce. They were all real food. I feel much better about being able to control what goes into our bodies and it is soooo much tastier! The original recipe is from Barefoot Bloggers but has been adapted to our taste.

The ingredients are simple and staples in many pantries.

Just blitz them all together and voila!
3/4 cup mayonnaise (you can use light mayo)

3/4 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt (you can use light or regular sour cream)

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1/4 to 1 cup buttermilk (I use powdered because we don’t use that much but plain milk also works)

1 small bunch fresh chives, roughly chopped

a generous handful fresh Italian parsley, no stems

1 Tbsp fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place all ingredients with 1/4 cup of the buttermilk in a food processor or blender and do several long pulses. Add more buttermilk if you like it thinner (we don't). Store in an air-tight jar in the fridge.

According to the Barefoot Bloggers, leftovers will keep 2 to 3 weeks. Ours won’t last that long… because it gets eaten!

If you don’t love garlic, cut back to one small clove or skip it. Other herbs that I’m going to try are: tarragon, lemon thyme, basil, and a little rosemary. Not all at once. I’ve chosen those herbs because we have them growing in the garden with the chives and Italian parsley. I’d love to hear your ideas.

Homemade Vinaigrette
This is my adaptation of the classic French vinaigrette my friend taught me to make many, many years ago after her year in France as an exchange student. The olive oil to vinegar ratio is way off compared to the original, which is four to one, but I like this more acidic, less oily version.

Pantry staples that can whipped up for a quick, delicious dressing.

½ cup olive oil
1/3 cup champagne or red wine vinegar (or your favorite flavored vinegar)
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

In a mason jar or other container with a tight seal, combine vinegar, Dijon mustard, sea salt and pepper. Cover and shake well to combine. Add olive oil. Cover tightly and shake vigorously for at least one minute. Dressing can also be made using a food processor or blender using the same method above except the olive oil should be drizzled in slowly while the machine is running. Either by hand or machine, the dressing should completely combine and won’t “break” (separate). Store at room temperature.

Tip: If you choose to go by the shaken-by-hand method, it is helpful to put a dishtowel over the jar lid to prevent any potential leaks from becoming messy spills. (I speak from experience…)

A tablespoon of fresh herbs, shallots, and/or 1 teaspoon of garlic can be added to the vinegar mixture prior to adding the olive oil if you like. However, with that addition, the vinaigrette must either be completely used immediately or stored in the fridge. The olive oil gets really thick in the fridge and has to come to room temperature before it can be used. I, personally, can’t think that far in advance so I leave this step out unless it’s a special occasion. I’m more likely to add the herbs or shallots directly into the salad greens. Like the garlic idea but don’t want to put it in your dressing? Rub the cut end of a clove around the bowl. 

Comments, please. Enjoy! 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Living in the Napa Valley Part II

Sunface Large Bag and Cat Face Pillow (below) at

As for galleries and boutique shopping, well, we have a lot of that too. Not that I, personally, know much about it. You’ll find me at the factory stores and Target. Most of the shopping in Napa Valley is about the tourists, not the locals. My sister-in-law is a local jewelry and hand painted clothing designer. You’ll find her artistry at several galleries and boutiques from Calistoga down to Napa.

"Abloom in Plum" Bracelet by Fringe Magic on

Cold drink barrel or planter by JayCWoodworks on

I know several people who create candle holders and coat racks or planters and tables using barrel staves. These items can be purchased on Etsy and Ebay. 

My adult niece builds and paints birdhouses (Mother/Daughter Trunk Show this Saturday featuring Hand Painted Designs By Lorna, Fringe Magic Jewelry and Mundy Creations)

Custom birthday invitations and party supplies by Ladybug Karla on
My friend and neighbor is a magician with her paper crafts including custom invitations, centerpieces, cupcake cups and toppers, and banners, as well as paper flowers and place cards; most of which have been shipped to her satisfied customers as far away as Atlanta. 

There are so many talented people in our area who get an added boost in sales because they can honestly say that their product was made in the Napa Valley. It may be no different than products being made in Idaho or Tennessee or NYC, but many people are impressed by this addition to a label. And it makes us aware of the same types of labels when we’re traveling. The Captain and I find all this ironic because we feel that Napa Valley is simply another farming community. It just so happens that the crop grown here attracts the masses and there is a certain associated romance, which even The Captain used to his advantage while pursuing yours truly. See? Even we jaded locals are susceptible. It does help that it is spectacularly beautiful here. But when I was a child, we were commonly referred to as Napkins. This isn’t The Hamptons, people; at least as far as we’re concerned.

Just to make sure you don't get the wrong idea, the vast majority of Napans are not wealthy. Our homes are modest. Our neighbors and family are like us: tugboat captains, realtors, teachers, electricians, accountants, lawyers, welders, refinery workers, and stay-at-home moms. We drive cars that no longer have payments. Our homes do not come equipped with wine cellars. We have never been to The French Laundry (although, for many, that is a bucket list item). We only go wine tasting when friends from out of town come to visit. Napans spend our days working, shuttling kids to activities, attending school, church, and community events, and doing our laundry just like everyone else.

On that note, it isn’t cheap to live here. Gas is a lot more expensive than most places (currently $4.25 for the cheap stuff). We could live in a much larger and newer house by moving just twenty minutes south on the highway, still in Napa County but outside the Napa Valley. Simply put, our dollar doesn't go as far here. I’m not trying to run-down where I live. It is famous for a reason. However, it also has its share of problems, such as no two new buildings anywhere in the city limits have anything in common. It’s a hodgepodge of whoever-had-enough-money-to-charm-city-council (I'm not saying they take bribes but are simply more enthused about money than consistency of design). The arborists the city hires have less sense than the trees on which they work. There are too many one way streets and no good reasoning behind them. One of the major arteries into downtown has been modified to direct traffic away from downtown and two new shopping centers were designed with not enough parking even before most of the shops had opened. Our school district has a tough time making ends meet so on top of the perpetual threat of school closures and pink slips, spending their own money for supplies and having waaaay too many kids in their classrooms (up to thirty-six), our teachers have a minimum of seven furlough days during the school year; most still manage to hold their chins up and present a smile. 

And with all that, the answer to the question I posed in the second paragraph in PART I is: Very. We are very lucky. Even if it didn’t have gorgeous views, fabulous food, and swanky boutiques in which to browse, if not buy, the Napa Valley would be my home because that is where my friends and family – my heart is.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Living in the Napa Valley

I'm starting out this post by apologizing for not having any photos. In our TV cabinet are thousands of photos. Diving in proved to be an exercise in futility and opened a can of worms. One would think that in this 15 cubic foot space I have some hardcore evidence that we do, in fact, reside in the Napa Valley in the form of photos, but no. Not one... save for our wedding photos and who's to say we didn't have a destination wedding? I did try to pirate some off a friend's hot air balloon company website but that didn't work. So, sorry. You'll just have to take me at my word. Here truly begins my post...

Ah! This is my second favorite time of year here in the Napa Valley – springtime! The hills are still lush and green, just a few weeks ago the mustard was in full bloom, the vines are now leafing out, and my chest allergies of fall and winter have switched to sinus allergies (I’m trying to look on the bright side…). Soon summer will be upon us, those green hills will turn golden (I prefer that to calling them brown) and the vineyards will be heavy with fruit.

The city of Napa is my hometown. I was born and raised here. I live about eight blocks from my parents who still live in the house I grew up in. My brother lives down the street from them in the house his wife grew up in. The Captain, who also spent most of his formative years here, and I have many more family members, four generations worth, who live in less than a three mile radius of us. How lucky are we?

Most people we meet who are not from NorCal assume that we own a winery, or that our family does, or that we at least work at one. So not true. The Captain and I have both worked in the tourist industry; in fact, that’s how we met. He was flying hot air balloons and I was doing group sales and marketing for the same small company. However, after years of working weekends, the schmoozing, and dealing with local ballooning politics, we both got out – and have stayed out. I’ve since been offered jobs at boutique hotels and spas by friends, which I have respectfully declined because I don’t want to put in the odd hours, schmoozing, and tours and wine tastings on my own time that really don’t interest me. Selfish? Yes, but that life style doesn't fit the needs of my family. Now, I love driving up valley through the tiny towns of Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga when we’re on our way to the Sonoma Coast or The Captain’s sister’s in Humboldt County. The scenery is breathtaking year round, it never gets boring, but the wineries and wine aren’t what interest me.

Beside my family -- it’s the food.

Over the years traveling outside our little valley, The Captain and I have realized how incredibly picky we are where restaurants are concerned; it took us a while to figure out why. To be frank, even the dives in Napa Valley have to be remarkable – even if it’s just remarkably cheap (like one of our favorite hole in the wall Mexican food joints). When The French Laundry is ten minutes from our front door, The Boy’s Cub Scout Den Leader is a James Beard Award winning chef and teacher at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, there are more amazing restaurants per capita than just about anywhere in the world, we have to lower our standards when we leave home. In a word, we’re spoiled – and, shall we say, big-boned… Yes, let's go with that.

It doesn’t help that we both love food. We love to cook. We love to eat. We watch the Cooking Channel and the Food Network (The Boy loves Cupcake Wars and Chopped, which just cracks me up). We subscribe to two culinary magazines – and devour them cover-to-cover. The Captain’s father published a cookbook in the 70s and was no stranger to the garden either, one sister is a personal chef and caterer, another sister managed a restaurant at Silverado Country Club, her husband is a former restaurateur, and The Captain himself is fearless in the kitchen. He bakes and decorates all the family birthday cakes (or dessert in my case since I don’t like cake), he is the master of the BBQ (charcoal, please, no gas grill for him), he bakes bread that I could eat an entire loaf of in one sitting, and his homebrewed beer and root beer are fantastic. Did I mention the ice cream, chicken stock, and spicy brown-butter chocolate chip cookies? Yeah. I have to fight for kitchen time. The Captain and his siblings, my brother’s wife, and I all seem to compete, good naturedly, to bring our best to the table. Living where we do, we have a lot of inspiration and lot to live up to. 

Not to mention a LOT to work off… which is not an easy task when one thinks exercise is a four-letter word. But that’s another post.

Having lived in the Midwest and Southeast Asia and spent a vacation in Cabo San Lucas at a house where we shopped and cooked for ourselves, I know the produce (especially), seafood, and meats we have available to us in the Napa Valley is also exceptional bringing about the ability to create great food. Our farmer’s market is located between the (now closed) Copia Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts opened by Robert and Margrit Mondavi and the Oxbow Public Market, which features one of my favorite gourmet pizza places with the best roasted veggies I’ve ever tasted and Ritual, the best latte in town, and, among others, organic ice cream and Model Bakery made more famous by the Food Network. It is not uncommon to see chefs in their white coats at the farmers market or Whole Foods picking out their own produce. It has to be great in this food mecca.

More next week...