Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ah, the Summer Tomato

Fleshy and juicy, firm yet tender, sweet with a little acidity, the vine ripened tomato is the quintessential contrapunctal delicacy. This is the fruit I dream about wistfully when the winter wind blows and the grocers offer only the sour, hard, boxy third cousins of the voluptuous red orbs that now await me in my garden. This is summer.

Last night I used them in this tuna salad. The dressing goes underneath the tomatoes: they taste good enough by themselves.

Served up with a bit of dill garlic bread (sounds awful, tastes weird by itself, but goes with the tuna) it was nothing special, really, but it sure tasted good.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mocha Java Chiller

Sonic opened its first drive-in in the Chicagoland area last Tuesday. See my earlier posts to recognize that both my cooking partner and I are familiar with these outlets.

Of course my cooking partner wanted to go on opening day, and, to be honest, so did a little part of me. Fortunately, it was my night for dinner, so I got to make the call, and the wiser part of me won the day. I had already put over a hundred miles on my car on Tuesday; I wasn't about to do another fifty and wait in what I knew would be a ridiculously long line on a weeknight.

Although I knew this weekend would be crazy busy at Sonic, I also knew how much my partner wanted to go, so I suggested we go on Saturday. (You must recognize that this was a bit of a sacrifice for me because I absolutely detest waiting in lines, especially at restaurants...often if there's a wait at a restaurant, I turn right around and head out the door.) So we went. On the first Saturday. And it was beyond crazy busy.

Mind you, we waited to leave the house until 9:15 P.M., figuring to arrive around ten (yes, I am sometimes crazy) and thereby miss the worst of the dinner rush. At 10:02, I turned in from Farnsworth just past the drive-in, immediately turned right again on the little mall road, but could not turn right into the Sonic parking lot. They had a guy directing traffic and he waved us over to the big mall parking lot, and then we saw them: four, I kid you not, four lines of cars with a guy at the head of each directing lucky diners to take their turns at the most fabulous of restaurants ever to have been known in the history of the world. Or, at least that's what you’d have thought if you’d been visiting from a foreign country.

Had we lived within ten miles, I would have done some hard in-car negotiation for a reprieve, but, since we had driven three-quarters of an hour to get there, I wasn't going to leave without having had some jalapeƱo poppers.

I actually had a bit more. Ahem. Knowing that we would not be back to this neck of the woods for some time, we each ordered a sandwich and two sides. And, of course the Java Chillers.

If you have never been to a Sonic, I will say this despite all the controversy and vitriol its opening seemed to stir up on the comments pages in the Chicago Tribune: all the arguments over the food are to be dismissed out of hand. You go to Sonic for its extensive drinks menu. (I don't know why they don't list all of the standard drinks on their Website.) Additionally, they are amenable to mixing any of their drink bases and flavors to create your own custom blend, although I'm not quite that high maintenance. Their most popular is the cherry limeade. You have to try it at least once.

I must say that the Java Chillers in Aurora weren't quite as good as those we had in Nevada, but, let's just say they're the best ones we've had since we got back from that trip. I do have some very strong coffee in my ice cube trays right now, so we're probably going to have some fun coming up with our own frappamoochillerinos.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

New Stove

We usually host a Fourth of July get-together. It started out as a barbecue, evolved through a catering phase, and now is pretty much a crockpot Italian beef affair. That’s Pat’s is the perfect Italian beef and is native to the Chicagoland area. Use this beef and your guests will be happy while you will have enough stock left over to make a nice beef soup. But I digress.

Our oven had been giving us some trouble in the week leading up to the Fourth, and the burners have always been a little problematic (the stove was in the house when we moved in about ten years ago). My cooking partner decided to make a batch of brownies during the party and the oven would not come up to temperature. No problem, just bake them a little longer, right? Hah! The brownies ended up a pan of gooey glop inside a thin chocolate pastry crust. Good thing we weren’t relying on them as our only dessert.

This was the last straw for that stove. On the fifth, I did a little research on the web; on the sixth, we went out and ordered this little beauty:

Unfortunately, because of the construction of our house, which I won’t detail here, the gas pipe enters the kitchen through the floor instead of the wall, so the stove has to jut out a few inches beyond the cabinets. (Great design, eh?) And, as you can see, we were limited by space to a standard 30” stove. But for all of that, this range is a joy to work with.

It’s a dual fuel range: gas cook top for better heat control and electric ovens for more even baking temperatures. Yep, I said ovens, plural. The little one at the top heats to 350° in about five minutes and is perfect for french fries, garlic bread…anything short: the interior is about 5½ inches high. The lower oven can be run in either standard or convection mode. One shelf has rollers, so it comes forward almost effortlessly, and one rack can be converted to half width so you can cook something tall next to two shorter dishes.

But the reason I was attracted to this model initially is its cook top. I don’t know about you, but I have not had a stove capable of a true simmer since I was a little kid living in my parents’ house. This stove has two burners that not only simmer, but actually burn low enough to heat delicate sauces without the cook’s undivided attention. It also has two power burners (one 12,000 BTU and one 16,000) and one all-purpose burner.

The trouble with the old stove was that, even using a heat diffuser, the lowest burner setting kept liquids at a boil a fair amount higher than a simmer. One of the first things I used to test out the ability of the simmer burners on this new baby was rice. We cook rice on the stovetop because we don’t have room for a rice cooker in our little kitchen. On the old stove, because of the higher temperatures, our rice was, well, inconsistent, and often boiled over. The first time I made rice on the new stove, I used the power burner to bring the water to a boil and then moved the pot to a simmer burner on low. It was too low! Joy of joys! A burner that actually warms gently.

I’ve since learned the appropriate setting for rice, but have also had to adjust to the short time it takes the ovens to come up to temperature. You know how you sort of get a rhythm going when you put a meal together? You start out gathering your stuff, paring your vegetables, and, at some point a timer goes off in your head telling you that it’s time to start the oven? Yeh, I did that and when the oven rang out it’s up-to-temperature notice, I still had about ten minutes to go. Same thing getting used to the power burners.

I’m not completely competent with this new stove yet, but I’m sure enjoying the learning process.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


That's Newsradio 780 in the Chicago area. What's with the pronunciations they teach in broadcasting schools? WBBM has a mostly professional image, and if you just want news, traffic, and weather without a lot of schoolkid antics, it's the station to turn to. For the most part, it sounds like a professional reading the news. But then, "dubba-do." I'm pretty sure that I didn't learn the name of any letter being dubba-do, and I'm pretty sure that our alphabet hasn't changed since I learned it.

When you have fewer than half, you have a minority, which still has four syllables and is not homonymous with the former Formula One team Menardi.

Summers in Chicago are not arid, but neither do they come with high "yumidity."

And, while some may equate Richard Daley with some or other part of a horse's anatomy, he really is not the "mare."

Reno: Day Six

This was to be Tahoe Day, and what a beautiful day it turned out to be! In order to make sure that getting lost wouldn’t make us late for our helicopter tour, we drove directly to the departure site: thought we’d find it, do some land based sightseeing, then head back for our afternoon tour. We did find it, with ease. And about five minutes later we got the call saying that the chopper would not be back from maintenance today.

Disappointed but undaunted, we set off on the lake ring drive, and did eventually complete the circuit. Whatever you’ve heard about the beauty of Lake Tahoe…it was true. I can only imagine what it was like to behold its splendor before the tourist trap towns cropped up.
Coming from Reno via Carson City, we entered the road about halfway up the east shore of the lake, near Glenbrook, and then turned south. After a couple of photo ops, I realized that we had only enough storage capacity left for about 70 photos…with most of the ring still to drive. Yikes! First glimpse of the lake:

After skirting most of the south end of the lake and seeing not much but tourists and RVs, we found the beach where Tallac and Taylor Creeks flow into the lake. For me, the lure was irresistible: I couldn’t come all this way and simply look at the lake; I absolutely had to put my feet in it. So I slung my shoes over my shoulder and let the cool liquid bathe my feet as I walked along the shore. Call me boring, but this was one of the highlights of my trip.

Here we collected a small rock for my sister-in-law, who likes people to bring her rocks from all the places they travel, and a few cones from the Ponderosa Pine. Very few. I’d say “a handful,” but that’s only if you’re using your fingers to count them. A single cone is at least two handfuls. We also collected some photos of the native flora in this park.

Back in the car, we rounded the turn to the west shore and beheld Emerald Bay. Just breathtaking! From the roadside, you look down a couple hundred feet to overlook the entire bay, which includes Fanette Island.

When we stopped at another vista, we met the Steller’s Jay, a western bird that we had not seen since we camped in Alberta seven years ago. He’s a bold jay and very flitty, making it hard to get a really good picture of him. There are some beautiful shots on the web, but hey, this is OUR vacation, so you get our shot of him.

By now we had filled up the camera, so we simply have to rely on our memories of most of the western shore, near the top of which we found Tahoe City and a camera store run by a guy from DesPlaines, IL. Small world. We bought a memory card for the camera and went on our merry photo taking way. We stopped somewhere along the eastern shore for a romp through the rocks, boulders, really. The day was so nice, and it’s cooler at the lake’s higher elevation by about ten degrees than it is in the dustbowl of Reno.

Upon completing the circuit, it was time to head back to Reno for the evening. I guess we might have stopped at the Sonic in Carson City. Yeh, we probably did. Okay, we definitely stopped for something to drink, and now my partner craves the Java Chiller. I wouldn’t have thought that the coffee used as a base for a drink at a Sonic drive-in would be of particularly high quality, but, honestly, the Java Chiller is like a Frappuccino on steroids. If you live near a Sonic studded region of the country, go out of your way to get one of these delectable treats. (We’ve noticed a Sonic being built about 25 miles from our home, in either North Aurora or Batavia, on Kirk Road just north of Butterfield, but have no clue as to the completion date.)

I had another big treat that evening at the hotel. When I had finished walking barefoot on the beach at Lake Tahoe, I had walked through some extremely fine, dry, black (and very hot, ouch!) soil. Even though I dried my feet and tried to rub off the dirt before putting my socks back on, it tenaciously held its ground all the rest of the day. Coming out of a minor daydream back at the hotel, I posed, “I don’t suppose you’d like to wash my feet for me.” “Sure!” was not the answer I expected, but it sure was a nice surprise.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Reno: Day Five

We decided to go to Pyramid Lake and take a look around. Pyramid Lake is north of Reno and by a quirk of fate, so is Sonic. Yes, we had breakfast at Sonic again. It’s a pretty short drive to the lake through hilly scrub. I’m not sure who the travel site is talking about, but I can’t quite imagine anyone not being able to hold it together for half an hour through any terrain other than arctic in a car and on smooth roads. As we admired the view at our first photo op, we met a couple from out east and chatted a little. Then we went to see the fish hatchery.

I’m sure a lot of you are yawning already, but I rather like fish and staying in tune with wildlife, so it was enough to keep my interest for the 30–45 minutes we spent there. As we got out of the car, the couple we had met was just pulling into the parking lot. We figured it would be like that all day, pulling into the same parking lots just minutes apart. We were wrong.

Trying to get closer to the lake, we took a route that appeared to ring it on the east (going from south to north). It’s a long, two-lane road and there was construction on it. You know how in populated areas they just have flaggers, or if the construction is going to last for a long period they put in a temporary stoplight? On this road, they had flaggers and a pilot car. Yep. The flagger stops you and says the pilot car should be back in fifteen minutes or so. So you wait for a pilot to lead you at a safe speed through several miles of nothing punctuated by enormous trucks and the activity of laying a new lane of asphalt.

After a while we were certain we’d gone far enough to pass the lake without having caught sight of it, so we turned back. And we came to the construction just in time to meet the pilot car with no wait! When we came to a little town, we decided to try and take some back roads and see if we could get closer to the lake on roads that aren’t on the map. The road quickly became dirt with not too much vegetation, but the hills were just high enough that we couldn’t quite see the lake. “Just a few more minutes, I’m sure,” we kept saying to one another. Then it started to rain and we met a few local kids on bicycles hightailing it out of there. Yeh. A Corolla in mud on uncharted roads. Hmmm. Keep going, or turn back? “Just a few minutes more, I’m sure!” After about half an hour of that, our luck still didn’t change and we never did get us to see the lake close-up. Even though we never got to the east side of the lake, we were very lucky in one respect: the storm that brought those rare Reno raindrops with it turned into a tornado shortly after it passed over the lake, yet we were blissfully unaware of the twister until we heard about it on the news.

We decided we really should eat somewhere other than at Sonic, so we looked up some restaurants and decided on a Chinese buffet. King Chinese buffet. It was fabulous! Sure, it had all the same stuff you find in any super buffet, but the food was not greasy at all—a common failing of Chinese buffet-only restaurants in my experience. The seafood selection was quite wonderful and I had perhaps a few mussels too many.