Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bobcat scare behind us; ducks and geese at long last free to enjoy these last days of summer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Recipe: Sun-Dried Tomato, Mozzarella and Spinach Strata

This recipe emerged as an answer to an overload of sun-dried tomatoes in my pantry. Obviously have been stocking up for some kind of emergency or something - although in what emergency sun-dried tomatoes constitute a food staple, I have no idea! A strata is also a great way of dealing with dried up bread... as they say Waste Not, Want Not.  It makes a beautiful presentation for a fancy brunch and is assembled in advance making for an easy, stress-free morning. Oh! And sometimes I substitute steamed asparagus for the spinach... equally wonderful!

2 loaves stale french bread, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
3 cups skim milk
1/4 cup sour cream
8 eggs
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 minced garlic cloves
2 cups baby spinach
1 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, 1/4 inch diced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
dash of salt and pepper
1 Tablespoon olive oil
cooking spray (olive oil or canola)

Combine milk, sour cream and eggs in a large bowl and beat until smooth. Add half the tomatoes and the garlic, stirring with a whisk.  Add the bread and stir gently so bread absorbs the liquid. Let stand for 5 minutes.

In a skillet on medium heat, heat olive oil to just hot, coating pan. Saute spinach until slightly wilted.
Remove skillet from heat.

Pour half of bread mixture into a 13 by 9 inch baking dish, coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle evenly with 3/4 of remaining tomatoes,  3/4 of the spinach and 3/4 of the mozzarella. Cover with remaining bread and top[ off with the rest of the tomatoes, spinach and  mozzarella, poking the spinach into little holes between bread. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

In the morning heat preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Uncover dish and sprinkle with the parmesan cheese.
Bake for 40 minutes. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before cutting into square portions to serve. Looks beautiful served own a plate dusted with parmesan cheese. Serves 6-8.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Recipe: Hand-Me-Down German Pancake with Brown Sugar Apples

This recipe has been in my family for generations! Much controversy focuses on whether it is actually a French or a German pancake (some have even said 'Swedish' and we are Hungarian so what gives?) Who  really cares, anyway? "Not I," said the cat. It's delicious! My mother made it for me when I was a little girl; we used to eat it spread with raspberry jam and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. The apples are my own adaptation. It can also be eaten alone with just maple syrup. This is Chance and Merit's all time favorite breakfast at the Bed and Breakfast. I always make extra so I can bring some home for them. 

For Pancake:

1/2 stick butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt

For Apples:

2 large apples
3 tablespoons sweet butter
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
dash of cinnamon (opt.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  In a medium bowl, beat eggs very lightly. Add in remaining pancake ingredients and beat together till mixed but still lumpy. Set aside. In a medium cast iron skillet, melt  the 1/2 stick butter on stovetop till bubbling. Add batter to skillet and place in oven to bake for 25 minutes. Pancake will be golden and puffy in parts,

While pancake is baking, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a frying pan until lightly bubbling. Add apples and cook  over medium heat until apples just begin to soften - about 5 mins. Add brown sugar and cinnamon and toss together till sugar is melted into butter and apples are well coated.

To serve, cut pancake into slices. Place slices on individual plates and spread apples across the top, drizzling a little of the brown sugar syrup on each slice. Can be eaten as is, or with maple syrup. For extra effect confectioners sugar can be sprinkled on top.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Once Upon A Time: One Day

         Five-thirty in the morning; the world is just beginning to stir into daylight; the coyotes’ quarrels are snuffed out one by one like candles extinguished.  I am outside on the deck, cool breeze and dog fur tickling my bare legs.  This is the moment of my day that belongs exclusively to me.  After this moment, the day will begin to blur and by noon it will seem as though two days have passed, neither of them mine.

Sometimes the day begins very early, preparing food for the bed and breakfast – quiche, muffins, popovers – methodically measuring out ingredients, mixing and mashing, concocting creations from the contents of my pantry shelves.

As tempting treats emerge fully realized from the oven I put together lunch for the children.  By the time I wake them up at six-thirty, their lunchboxes, flanked by recently scrubbed and filled sport bottles, are at the front door ready for school. I look around the house for errant bits of homework, due today but somehow still laying on the desk or coffee table.  I put them in folders and stage them by the door as well.  

Soon after, my husband Walt calls and we all huddle around the phone taking turns.  These calls – there are many throughout the day - are what we have instead of proximity.  Walt is in New York and the kids and I are in Santa Fe.

At twelve, Chance is old enough to get himself ready in the morning but vanity and obsessions slow him down.  I am resigned to prod and cajole him away from the mirror, encourage him through changes of wardrobe, channel his father as I yell into the bathroom “Would you please move with some alacrity?”

Merit, only eight, will attempt to select her outfit for the day, but requires guidance - which normally takes the form of “Honey?  I’m not so sure that purple goes with that shade of orange.” And other such helpful fashion tips that mean nothing to a second-grader.  I always have an eye out for things that need to be donated to the Salvation Army, but I have to do this clandestinely because she wants to keep everything, whether it’s wearable or not.

I grab everything that I need to take down to the bed and breakfast.  If I have a lot to carry and am taking the children to school, I’ll pack it all into the car and drive the short distance down our lane, but otherwise I’ll walk.

Now it’s seven-thirty.  Time to feed the animals.  Merit and I usually feed “short” and Chance feeds “long”.  For me that means the donkeys, chickens and pigs.  Chance handles the goats and sheep, following the long fence to make his stops. In the summer it’s a pleasant task; the cool morning air gives me a nudge into the social part of my day.  The animals grunt, bray and baah appreciatively.  The water gurgles and spurts through the hoses, sometimes spraying us in its eagerness to escape, making short-arced rainbows in the air in front of us. But in the winter the cold is an assault and our faces freeze to stone, eyes blur, gloved hands become numb as they loosen ice from buckets.  That time will be here soon enough.

So now I relish the fair morning air that promises another day in this Southwestern paradise.  It is ten-to-eight when I turn the key to the inn.  There is coffee to brew and a frittata to make.  Merit sets the table with fancy “pig-eared” napkins that she taught herself from a book and places the basket of chocolate-chip scones that I baked earlier in the middle of the table.  I put together a fruit salad with kiwi and tangerine slices, boiling up a syrup from the mint plants that threaten to strangle all the other flowers.  Tinier mint leaves are used for garnish.

When the guests arrive for breakfast it is eight-thirty and for the next hour-and-a-half I am cutting and serving and pouring, but mostly I am talking, talking, talking.  Sometimes we laugh so much my cheeks hurt.  When my mother was alive we would rotate breakfast duty.  One day I was outside trimming and edging the flower garden and heard her regaling the guests with tales of fires and people losing their homes and some poor guy even getting crushed by a truck.  I ran inside scolding, “Come on Ma!  These people don’t want to hear about stuff like that! They're on vacation!"

Now me, I like to introduce everyone and get them all talking – like a party! – and then at the end of the meal  wind down to the nitty-gritty of what everyone is interested in doing for the time they’re here and how I can assist them in making it happen.  After all, these kind folks are on holiday and want nothing more than not to have to waste their precious leisure time figuring out directions and wondering if they're eating at the best restaurants or hiking the most scenic trails.  I try to do that for them.  That’s my job.  I have trekked and eaten my way through this area so that I can do my job very well.

Some days I have to excuse myself for a bit to drive the kids into school, but today another parent is giving them a ride.  I remain with the women down from Alaska who are holding a mid-life crisis retreat of sorts here and ply them with powerful elixirs to cure the previous nights overindulgences.  They are so funny and so much fun, I wish they were staying longer.  As I clear and wash the morning dishes I can here them in the driveway, stumbling around on the river-rock, dragging luggage to their vehicles, laughing and falling over one another.  They make so much noise that the animals get all stirred up and join in.  Soon it sounds like a zoo out there.  I smile as I put dishes in the cabinet.

My part-time cleaning lady, Alma, arrives and we begin cleaning floors and stripping beds, polishing and dusting until all is ready for the new day and new guests.  Alma goes into the aviary and finds a snake; her screams curdle my blood and make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  She comes running in yelling “Marie, Marie!”  Alma makes serpentine motions with her hand and arm and gestures wildly toward the bouganvilla, looking like she could faint at any second. 

We run into the aviary, Alma more than a safe distance behind me and there it is; a bull snake undulating around the plants base.  The problem with bull snakes is that at first glance they very much resemble a western diamondback rattle snake, even going so far as to having evolved a tail-twitch which they love to do in dry grass so it sounds for all the world like a rattle.  This adaptation can give one a bad couple of seconds for sure.  

I maneuver it away with a stick and grab it the way I learned watching “Crocodile Hunter” and pick it up.  Alma kicks the back door open and backs away, muttering her disgust in Spanish.  Her fingers fidget nervously as if counting off imaginary rosary beads.  I fling the snake into the arroyo and come back inside.  Alma backs away from me as if the nearness of the serpiente has somehow tainted me, made me spiritually dirty.

Soon we are done; together making quick work of it and as I leave, walking back up to my house, I practically collide with the Alaskan contingent returning from a walk around the property.  They have decided that they just could not leave without petting “one of those adorable baby goats!”, so I hustle off to the pens to “wrastle one up” for them, which isn’t an easy thing with them standing by watching, whooping and laughing.  When I finally come through my door it is quarter to twelve.  Sitting down and getting a little writing in is my next goal, immediately interrupted by the ringing phone.  One of our tenants tells me he has no water.  I hang up, go to the sink and turn a spigot.  There is nothing.  Not a gurgle, not a stammer.  Nothing.  The phone rings again and it is a guest; “Do you know there’s no water down here?”.  Nope.  Now I do, though.  

Putting my boots back on, I head down to the wellhouse.  The pump has been pretty much reliable, so not many trips are made to the wooden shed that holds these waterworks.  Opening the door I find the place strung with so many enormous spider webs occupied, it would seem, by so few spiders that I feel that an ambush by anxious arachnids is imminent.  I become suspicious and wary, expecting them to jump me all at once, a fuzzy, biting, crawling ball.  I negotiate through the shed with caution and dread.  Whether it is fear or common sense I can’t say, but I quickly exit to find myself in front of the circuit breaker box mounted on a pole just outside the shed.  Thankfully, I find the breaker tripped; an easy fix.  After resetting it, I move quickly to the first hydrant I come to, feeling spiders with every step, and yank it on.  Water gushes onto my boots.  I call everyone to make sure they have water where they are.  They do.  Tragedy averted.

At home again, with my opportunity to write now gone with the passing of time, I jump into my accounting.  Mounds of bills, opened and sorted, grow on the top of the copper-clad coffee table.  I take a seat on the warm wood floor, my checkbooks in my lap.  The cat lies in a pool of sunlight nearby, occasionally pawing the calculator, making several of my sums somewhat suspect.  Immersed in sun and numbers time passes quickly and soon it is two-thirty, time to pick the children up from school; mine and a neighbor’s in Madrid, some twelve miles more round-trip.

Before I go, I make a stop at our garden to select some of my best cucumbers and beets for our friends at school.  I find some cucumbers that, like science experiments gone awry, have reached nearly two feet in length.  Though they are clearly beyond eating - they seem best used for bludgeoning – I fight a desire to keep nurturing them.  Perhaps there is a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records in my future.  I pack a dozen cukes and a bag of fist-sized beets into the box I keep in the back of the truck.  At school, the folks practically fight over them, so I have to distribute them discreetly, like a playground drug-dealer.  The principal walks over with knitted brow to see what I’m up to.  She ends up with a beautiful cucumber, all concern gone. 

By the time I have dropped Alicia off and gotten us home more than an hour has gone by.  Guests are checking in tonight, so while I wait for them I cook dinner at my father’s place, which is on our property.  Tonight’s fare: beef burgundy.  This is largely due to the fact that the other commodity we have plenty of in our garden is carrots.  Frankly, I have not purchased a vegetable at the grocery store since early June.  If I could ever bring myself to learn the art of butchering meat we could be fairly self-sufficient, but I just don’t have it in me.

The guests arrive as they often do; right as I am about to seat myself for dinner.  I leave my plate and head up to greet them and get them settled in.  Dinner is cold when I return so it’s to the microwave for a little blast.  My father is at the sink trying to help with the dishes but is getting more food on the floor than in the sink or garbage.  To save myself more work, I direct him back to his chair with many “Thank you, Daddy”s.  After I clean up I herd the kids back home.

Walt, two hours ahead of us on the East Coast, calls as he does every night to hear about everyone’s day before he goes to bed.  Chance always has plenty to share, his preferred form of communication being the monologue.  Merit prefers to tell Dad “all about it” in person, draped around him or squeezed into his chair with him or sitting on his lap.  She is relieved to do their ritual goodbye – which includes meowing and purring to a little responsorial they’ve worked out.  She finishes up and without a bit of resistance heads in for her bath.  As I help her with the task, she shows me all the signs she’s learned that day in American Sign Language and teases me when I get them wrong.  “Mommy, can’t you control your fingers?” she asks, her eyes twinkling.  All dried off and in her Pjs, she joins me on the couch and reads Charlotte’s Web aloud to me.  Charlotte, having birthed her offspring, is now close to death and, even though I know how this thing turns out, I am inconsolable.

After I recover we practice math facts and I take her through a ten word spelling test.  Chance is typing a paper, and, as usual, it is an epic.  His little opus is due Friday – tomorrow – and at his current pace he may finish by Wednesday, so I offer to give him a hand.

The moon shines in through the big windows; fat, bright and just short of full.  Night has managed to steal up on us and stare in with its large single eye.  I draw the shades and hustle the kids in for face-washing and teeth-brushing and tuck them into bed.  We have our nightly ritual that includes them rubbing my left earlobe as we kiss goodnight.  They say it helps them get to sleep.  Who am I to argue?  “Wherever did this come from?” I wonder, not for the first time.

Before I turn in, I step outside to give the dogs their nightly treat.  A stray, a beautiful malamute with icy eyes, has been hanging around for a few nights.  I give him something too, a blatant bribe so he won’t go after our sheep later in the dark of night.  Millions of stars bathe me in their cool glow.  The dogs settle into their places on the deck.  Sleep awaits me.  Morning and another day are behind the black curtain of sky, waiting too, not so far away.     

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Foreword by Walt Willey

Drawing by Walt Willey

It’s not my fault.  Really it isn’t.  Maybe you can blame Laura Ingalls or the quaint village outside Geneva, Switzerland where Marie spent her formative years, but you can’t blame me and Marie will tell you the same thing herself.

It wasn’t my intention to banish my wife to a mesa top a couple thousand miles away to tend the flock, bed and board strangers, raise children by herself, battle the elements, and live the life of a frontier woman.

But I helped.  I admit to that much.

In the early ‘90’s, Marie and I began visiting the Southwest in general and Santa Fe in particular and we fell in love.  The days with their endless blue sky, the star-strewn nights, the red rocks, and the pervasive spirituality all tugged at us until we finally bought a house out in Eldorado, a sub-division of Santa Fe.  We visited often and soon installed my mother, sister, and nephew.  Before long, we got married and pregnant and were ready to find new digs.

“How about a property that I could turn into a bed and breakfast?”  Marie asked one day.  “A nice little farm?  I could have a garden, a few chickens, maybe a milk cow?”

“Are you serious?” I asked, knowing full well she was.  I had been hearing her refer to the “Little House” books for years, even been forced to watch a couple of episodes of the television show, but I truly wasn’t  prepared for the actuality that she might want to live it.

“Honey, we can’t do that.” I reasoned.  “Someone would have to be out here all the time, especially at first.  We’re not farmers.  We’re not innkeepers.  How can we possibly do it?”  It was meant to be a rhetorical question.

But Marie had the answers; well considered, well researched, well defended.  She had stood by me through good and not so good and really bad times, always putting herself second.  I loved her and couldn’t say no.  Besides, the notion was actually starting to make sense. God help me.

“Okay, let’s look at some places” I said, and off we went.  An old rundown farm here, a beautifully appointed horse property there and then, finally, the Crystal Mesa Farm.  We both loved it from the start and the choice held up under all the scrutiny and devil’s advocacy we could muster.  Offers were bounced back and forth, a price decided upon, papers signed.  It was ours, for better or worse.

It has been both, as you shall read. It is seventeen years later and Marie, with some help from her mother and father, our son and daughter, some good friends here and there, and even me - her mostly absent husband - has made a huge success of the Crystal Mesa Farm Bed & Breakfast. 

Plumping pillows and filling bellies, serving happily as livestock midwife and ranch foreman and hostess and tour guide and doting mother and devoted wife have all become as natural to her as breathing.  She is remarkable by anyone’s standards, but she is without peer as far as I’m concerned. 

And once you read her travails and taste her recipes, I know you’ll agree.