August 24, 2014

It's been a long — and short — summer

Found in a box of photos.

Obviously, I've been away. We left Seattle June 30 and headed east to Madison, Wis. to clean out our beloved house in preparation for selling it. We had been renting it out the past five years while we adjusted to life in Seattle, but after a particularly gnarly and stressful winter, We decided we just couldn't do it anymore. Our tenants left the house unattended for two weeks during the polar vortex, and the day they left the house, the heat went off causing all the radiators and pipes to freeze and crack. (The house was heated by fuel oil, and a delivery was made the day the tenants left. Three weeks later when the oil company returned to deliver another load, the tank was still full.) We don't know if they turned the heat too low, accidentally turned it off, or what, but by the time they returned two weeks later, the house was a disaster requiring $72,000 in repairs.

To make the situation even more disheartening, the tenants not only took no responsibility, they demanded to be paid for time and effort spent mopping up water after the radiators began to warm up. We didn't blame the tenants for the destruction, and our insurance paid for most of the repairs (though not the two trips Ken made to the house), but we were harassed and sent degrading emails during the three-month restoration ordeal. They called us bullies and dishonest, and if anything describes us as landlords, it's not that. (They must have forgotten that we let them pay $200 less per month for two years, and no rent at all for a month last summer while they went to their family lake house up North. Duh.) We chose to have a new gas-fired high-efficiency heating system installed at our expense even though the heating company could find nothing wrong with the existing boiler. When the house was ready for occupancy in mid-April, we told the tenants they could live free for two weeks and begin paying again on May 1, but for various trumped-up reasons, they felt the $700+ they would not have to pay was inadequate compensation for the three days of mopping floors. There is much more to the story, of course, but that's all I can stand to retell.

The house sold without going on the market, and at first that seemed great, but the buyers have been very demanding, and the drama continues. On Aug. 25, we close on the house, and it will no longer be ours — for better or worse. It was a wrenching experience clearing our lives from the house and parting with so much "stuff," but it had to be done. We had an estate sale run by a church, and their share of the profits went to supporting homeless shelters and food banks, so I feel happy about that, but it sure was hard to say goodbye to so many things connected with my life.

We used the large basket on the right for storing out-of-season clothes.

We sold nearly all of the furniture and household items, including loads of baskets and other collections from around the world. I think there are now African baskets decorating the homes of many of my former neighbors. As I looked at each piece of furniture, I could remember where I had gotten it and who I was with when I'd found it. Lots of the pieces were antiques found at auctions and estate sales long ago, objects gathered from world travels, or pieces connected to late family members, and all were attached to fond memories.

We happened upon a jazz concert on a street corner near our house.

Letting go of 'things' was hard enough, but letting go of Madison was also hard. Madison is such a great place to live — in spite of the 'complicated' weather and prevalence of summer mosquitoes. I love it there, and will miss the city and the many, many wonderful people I've come to know and love.

Callie came with us on the trip, and I think she got a little tired of the incessant sorting and packing. I'm pretty sure she wasn't as emotional when we finally hit the road as we were.

We didn't do much cooking while we were working on the house. Wait, what am I saying — we didn't do ANY cooking. We usually ate fruit for breakfast and a big salad for either lunch or dinner, depending on which meal we ate outside the house. We bought bags of arugula, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and toasted sunflower seeds from Trader Joe's and heaped those items into our large enamel camping bowls at least once a day. The best meals were provided by friends, but we also ate in a number of vegan-friendly restaurants. Although I always asked for gluten-free food, I had stomach pains on many occasions following dinner. One place I never felt sick was Maharaja Indian restaurant, and we enjoyed many meals there.

Sweet potato hash with tofu scramble, fresh fruit and a side of broccoli (instead of toast).

Another restaurant where we ate a couple of times was Monty's Blue Plate — a comfort food style restaurant with vegan and gluten-free menu options clearly marked on the menu. I love when restaurants identify which items are vegan and gf. The food tastes really good at Monty's, but sometimes my husband and I both feel stomach distress after eating there. Their tofu scramble is pretty great, though. Oh well.

Much to my surprise, we've come to depend on Chipotlé while traveling. Believe it or not, I'd never tasted Chipotlé food before, but it was really handy to be able to have a sofrito salad bowl when everything else seemed too heavy, or making our own dinner seemed too hard. I like the ease with which I can customize my order, and I've never felt sick after eating the food. One order of salad was enough for two meals for me.

My friend and neighbor, Claudia, overcame her fear of feeding vegans and prepared an amazing, elegant supper of quinoa pilaf, roasted veggies and salad. It was delicious.

Eating at friends' houses was the best, and we're grateful for folks like Betsy, and Gary and Lanette for inviting us to share delicious meals with them.

A hiking trail at Gov. Dodge State Park.

In addition to seeing friends, we took time out from our work schedule to visit beautiful places — my friend Mari introduced me to a natural area just outside the city where I'd never been before. And we hiked at Gov. Dodge State Park. We were pretty surprised to find that about half the trails, including our favorite, were closed because of tornado damage in June.

Along The Lakeshore Path.

We walked out to Picnic Point and in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, as well as Allen Centennial Gardens, Olbrich Gardens and other points of beauty and respite.

It seemed like we were in Madison for a really long time — until the day we left when it suddenly seemed very short. Now that we're back in Seattle, it's hard to believe the summer is almost over.

Have you ever been in a position of having to downsize your stuff? Are you a saver or a cleaner?

I'll share more about our summer over the next couple of posts, including a getaway to Cape Cod that includes a look at the greatest wedding food surprise ever!

June 30, 2014

Turkish cooking class with Sureyya Gokeri

My plate.

I've posted about taking cooking classes at PCC (our food co-op) before, and as in the past, we really enjoyed both the instruction and the food in our latest class. Over the course of the two hour class period, Sureyya made four dishes — all gluten-free and vegan — that would be spectacular served to guests, but were definitely easy enough for everyday fare. Because she was cooking for such a large group, some of the food prep for the class was done ahead of time, but all of the actual cooking was done in class. I haven't actually tried to prepare the dishes at home to see how the 30-minute claim holds up, but it seemed pretty doable to me.

The Middle Eastern classes taught by Sureyya Gokeri are probably our favorites, both because Sureyya is a great teacher and a great cook. Not only do we learn to make the recipes she has selected for the class, but she verbally throws in loads of other recipes and hints that add to the information already in our class booklets. And the food is always spectacular.

The first dish made and consumed was gavur dagi salatasi — salad with olives and black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas don't require soaking before being cooked, and once the cooking water comes to a boil, they cook in about 20 minutes, making them ideal for a 30-minute dish. They were combined with wonderful flavors like pomegranate molasses, green olives, arugula and walnuts to make a fantastically delicious salad. I love salads where some of the components are cooked and warm, and some cold and raw. And, Sureyya told us that warm foods soak up the flavors better so it's better to add warm beans to salads.

Highlighted at the center of the plate is muceddere — brown lentil and rice pilaf with caramelized onions. Brown lentils are different from other lentils in that they stay firm after being cooked, rather than cooking down to a soft and creamy consistency. The ingredient list for the pilaf is rather short, and contains no exotic ingredients, unless you consider allspice and parsley exotic. Yet, the flavor was amazing.

At the left side of the plate you see ful akhdor — a dish of artichokes, fava beans, and almonds. Although the fava beans Sureyya used in class came from a can, she showed us how to choose and use fresh favas, if we found them at the farmers market. The pods that look all brown and weird are the ones to buy. This was another easy recipe that came together really quickly and tasted much more complicated than it was.

On the right is patlican mousakka — cumin-scented spicy eggplant in creamy tomato sauce. Although the other items on the menu were Turkish, the mousakka is from Afghanistan. Sureyya used regular large eggplants for the dish because that's what was available at the co-op, but she recommended using the small, thin Japanese or Italian eggplants for better flavor. She also advised us to buy the hardest eggplants we could find because she said they have the fewest seeds and the best texture. She also said that the only time she soaks eggplant is if she's cutting it ahead of time and doesn't want it to darken after being exposed to air. The eggplant was cooked with lots of spices like cumin, turmeric, coriander and cinnamon. It was delicious.

To finish off the meal we were served havuc koftesi — aromatic carrot and nut bonbons. The photo makes the bonbons look much bigger than they were — probably the size of a golf ball. Because the dessert was gluten-free and didn't contain flour, Sureyya used gluten-free graham crackers which she turned into crumbs. I was a little dismayed to find that the crackers contained honey, which I prefer not to eat. I was pretty full from the other foods so I didn't miss having dessert at all. I think I'd look for an alternative to graham crackers for these — maybe almond flour or coconut flour.

Sureyya and her family own a great little restaurant called Cafe Turko, located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. I've never been to Turkey, but I've been told that eating at Cafe Turko is like walking into a cafe in Turkey. The decor, and the import store within the space makes it feel like you've entered an entirely out-of-the-ordinary place. We really love eating there, and if you're in the Seattle area, I recommend it. There are lots of vegan and gluten-free choices, and the Gokeri family will make you feel right at home.

June 25, 2014

Sodastreams and Vitamix blender jars

Quite a number of months ago I got a sodastream, but I held off talking about it until I had formed an opinion, and then, it became such a part of everyday life that I forgot to mention it. It's time to talk about how often we use it and how much we like it. We make at least two large bottles of carbonated water every day, and we're totally in love with this little contraption. But before I say anymore about the sodastream, I'll tell you how we happened to get one.

I'd kind of always wanted one but couldn't justify buying and storing another kitchen appliance. We almost never purchased mineral water anyway, unless we were having company, so why add to the kitchen clutter when we didn't need to? In spite of my reservations, I still occasionally thought about asking the sodastream company for a sample to review, but never got up the nerve.

One night I was sitting in front of the TV flipping channels — something I rarely do — but there I was. As I flipped, a sodastream came into view on what turned out to be HSN (home shopping network), and I started watching. The $65 price seemed awfully low, and I was waiting for the catch, but there didn't seem to be one. I had no intention of succumbing to the "call this number" refrain but I said, half jokingly, to my husband, "you should call and buy a sodastream." Much to my shock and surprise, he did, and it arrived a few days later with every flavoring substance in existence. The carton of flavorings is still in the basement, but the sodastream sits on the counter and is used at least once per day.

In case you don't know what a sodastream is, it carbonates water to make a homemade version of sparkling water, seltzer, mineral water, fizzy water — whatever you like to call it. It takes up barely any room at all, and doesn't require electricity — only a carbonation canister that can be exchanged for a full one when empty ($15). The canisters are refilled, so there isn't any waste, and because we continually refill the same bottles, we're not adding to the plastic stream. It came with two large bottles and two smaller ones, which the instructions say to replace after two or three years. We love it, and use it all the time. My husband likes to squeeze lime into his sparkling water, but I like mine plain. Occasionally I'll add lemon and a few drops of stevia, but mostly I drink it straight.

The warning you see on the label says to only carbonate plain water. You must add any flavorings after the carbonation process, or risk an explosion. I know this can really happen because I know someone who didn't read the instructions. (That would be you, LW.)

I timed how long it took me to make a bottle of carbonated water, and it was a total of about 20 seconds — 10 seconds to fill the bottle and 10 to add the gas. If you'e in the habit of buying carbonated water, a sodastream might be a useful kitchen tool.

While I'm talking about kitchen additions, here's a little splurge I'd been thinking about for a while and finally gave in to. One inconvenience of a Vitamix 5200 is the tall jar. I love my Vitamix dearly, and would be lost without it, but the jar isn't the easiest thing to empty — especially if it's loaded with a smaller quantity of thick, or sticky stuff. I found myself not making certain recipes because I didn't want to coax smaller quantities from the jar. I'm lazy, I know, but it was bugging me. I kept wishing the company would make a shorter jar.

One day while at Costco, watching a Vitamix demo (so I could get a sample of the ice cream at the end), I noticed a short jar. After talking to the demo guy, I learned it was a grain jar, which I didn't want. He handed me a different container that he said was a short version of the regular jar, not a grain jar, at a special Costco price. Note that even a 'special price' for a Vitamix part is ridiculous when compared to other blenders, but it was 1/3 less than the price on the Vitamix Web site, and I really wanted it.

I intended to keep the short jar in the cupboard and bring it out for certain small-quantity recipes, but since buying the short jar, I've put my old one away. The new one seems big enough for everything I make, and if it's not, I can always get the old jar out of the cupboard. It feels like I just got a new blender, and I'm very happy with it.

Have you splurged on any kitchen items that have really turned into great, useful additions to your cooking tools?

June 21, 2014

Fremont Solstice Parade 2014, and a smoothie

Blueberry-mango version

The first day of summer in Seattle was uncharacteristically warm and sunny — perfect weather to start the new season. Blue skies, sunshine, 77 breezy degrees, and the annual Fremont Solstice Parade all promised to make the day special. I started the day with my current favorite smoothie.

Into the Vitamix goes one banana (not frozen), 1/2 cup of frozen cherries OR blueberries, 1/2 cup of frozen mango OR pineapple, two tablespoons of chia seeds, 1/2 of a small organic lemon, a handful of almonds and one cup of filtered water. All of the frozen fruit I used was organic fruit that I found at Costco. As you can see there isn't any kale or spinach or chard, but if that's what you want, just add it. I like fruit.

The Solstice parade starts out with the nude bicyclists, and it's a joyful jolt of hilarity. Most of the riders are thoroughly and creatively painted, but some are just ... naked on a bike.

The riders seem to be having a lot of fun, and they interact with the appreciative crowd. There's lots of shrieking and cheering, and sometimes verbal exchanges.

One beautifully decorated woman asked as she went by, "does riding a bike make my butt look big?"

Some of the costumes involve more than paint, as you can see in the turtle, above. I only take photos part of the time because I get so caught up in just watching.

What parade would be complete without a wizard or two?

Or a specialized costume.

After the nude cyclists — and there are hundreds of them — the bands, floats, singers and dancers take over. None of the floats are allowed to be motorized so they have to be pulled and pushed by people.

There are gigantic, spectacular creatures made from paper, as well as more "traditional" rhythm bands and musical groups. There are always pointed political performances as well.

Did I mention the dancers of every stripe?

And the fabulous singers?

I gotta tell ya, the sixties live on in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle!


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