Monday, May 30, 2011

Picnicking with the Linguinis

You must understand this: We Linguinis NEVER take picnics lightly.

Well...until yesterday...

However, you must understand our background of picnicking before you can truly be amazed at yesterday's excursion to Lost River State Park in West Virginia.

Growing up, there were always several picnic excursions throughout the summer and they were always hours away. My father always liked to be traveling in the opposite direction of the traffic; so, though we lived near the shore, with a beautiful state parks 10 to 30 minutes away, we were always heading "against traffic" to the "mountains" of New Jersey (High Point State Park has what New Jerseyans call "mountains"). This required leaving at 6 o'clock in the morning and dragging in at 9 o'clock at night -- but not a single second was spent sitting in traffic (though Pa would look at the line of cars going in the opposite direction and comment on how ridiculous it was to be sitting in traffic like that).

I realize the purpose of a picnic is to eat -- A. Meal.

One. Meal.

Remember, though: We arrive at 8 o'clock in the morning. So breakfast, lunch and dinner all have to be arranged and carted. There were bags of Mrs. Obco's Donuts and thermoses of coffee (my parents had an official coffee thermos bag specifically for this) for breakfast, deli for lunch with a complete selection of cold cuts, rolls, bread, condiments and salads, and then a variety of meats to barbecue for dinner.

On top of this, were the rare treats of junk food -- this was the one time my mother would buy us any sweet crap the television has convinced us was the end-all in desserts. And she wouldn't just buy a package -- she'd buy an entire BOX; boxes of Twinkies, boxes of TastyKake pies, boxes of chocolate grahams, boxes and boxes and boxes of sugar! (We won't discuss the long-range ramifications of this practice; right now I choose to make this a happy her heart, Ma meant well -- though when I tell this to my kids now, they're really bummed.)

Okay. That was just the food. Now we had to load the car with things to occupy us for 12 hours, both in the car and at the picnic site. John Boy had his maps and pamphlets, Dark Garden had his assortment of recreational equipment (fishing rod, basketball, swim gear), I had a pile of books, my mother had her crossword puzzles, and Pa had his beer (though, in all fairness, he was the one who took DG fishing, swimming and to the playground, not to mention he did all the barbecuing).

Oh...did I mention the assorted relatives? Grandma, aunts, cousins -- sometimes it spilled over into a second vehicle, particularly since a dog or two also had to be accommodated.

Whenever we'd arrive at the park, if it was crowded, my mother used to moan about there being so many people around that it wouldn't be relaxing. It occurs to me that, upon seeing our parade enter the picnic area, most of the other people were thinking the same thing.

Nowadays, my generation is in charge of the picnicking and, while we've streamlined a few things, it is still and event requiring more planning than the Normandy Invasion. Everything is up for discussion, from the venue to the menu.

JB makes lists and, while I've never actually seen his list, it must look like this: beer, bratwurst, bottle opener.

DG brings all the meat, barbecue stuff...and cleaning products; lots and lots of cleaning products. We always have the cleanest picnic site in the park. No roll of paper towels and damp cloth for him -- no! He's got spray disinfectant and cloths and wipes.

I bring the stuff that has to be cooked ahead -- salads, side dishes and...yes...dessert; one dessert. ONE.

Yes, we've pretty much got this picnic thing down, though I will admit, all the advance planning a prep can get stressful until we decide on everything.

Well, until yesterday...

It all came together too easily -- which should have warned me. We immediately agreed on the venue, we each stated what we were bringing (admittedly, we do turn into the Atkins family on picnics) and we generally coordinated a time (cell phones don't work at Lost River).

I have to admit, it was coming together so nicely that all week long I hardly gave it a thought. I did my usual grocery shopping and only threw in a few items that were picnic-related (instead of doing my usual pre-picnic shopping blast I can ill-afford). I did a few prep things the night before, slept in the day of (unprecedented!), and loading the car consisted of one cooler and Zsa Zsa's water bowl and tie-out chain (which we only use if we see park rangers driving around -- I try to spare her the indignity of being in chains when there is no need).

So here is how it went down:

DG was bummed because my nephews both had to work that day and couldn't come. Dirtman was also working, so he wasn't there. Heir2 couldn't make it home from Roanoke for the holiday weekend, so he wasn't there.

No one brought paper plates.

No one brought tongs to barbecue.

No one brought paper towels.

JB blamed it all on the fact that for the first time, he hadn't made a list (he never put these things on his stupid list and, besides, when he makes a list, he always forgets to put something on the list anyway, rendering the list useless).

However (and everyone else may disagree, I'll admit):

I had a wonderful, relaxing time. We had a nice, secluded spot next to a brook. I could sit on a rock and put my feet in the water. It wasn't too hot or too cold.

All the other stuff?

We made do.

Note the dishes made from aluminum foil, the knife doubling as "tongs" and our site-side cleaning system (actually, we only washed our hands in the stream).

The food was great. It was a beautiful day. But, more importantly...

...Zsa Zsa was happy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Macaroni and...

Every ethnicity has their own version of a fallback meal. I'm sure this is what stir fries are in Asian cuisine and pot pies are in Anglo circles. For us it was the "macaroni and...s."

The dish usually starts with softening up some onions and/or garlic in olive oil while boiling up a pound of whatever pasta you have around (hence, the generic "macaroni" instead of a specific type). Then you throw in whatever vegetable(s) is(are) handy in the crisper, freezer or can, toss in a little of the pasta water and, usually basil and/or oregano. The cheese and grater are, of course, on the table.

These days, I cut the amount of olive oil and rely on chicken stock along with the pasta water for some of the moisture. And I don't cook the living daylights out of the vegetables and pasta like my mother and grandmother did

The dish above is macaroni and cauliflower, which sounds like it shouldn't go, but actually does (a drained can of diced tomatoes is in there too). I've upgraded it with fresh oregano, only because somehow last year's oregano patch that went to seed survived the winter and now we have more oregano than we know what to do with. When you come to my house, you don't get to leave unless you take oregano with you.

There is also macaroni and peas made the same way, only I confess I like it best with a handful of diced pancetta browned with the onion. I'm the only one who likes macaroni and escarole -- mostly because no one else will even taste it. I'm sure at some point my mother or grandmother made macaroni and kale -- but the main reason I married Dirtman is that he had a equally jaundiced opinion of kale and I knew that I would never be forced to so much as smell that horrid weed ever again.

In this house, our hands down favorite is Macaroni and Beans. This is the only time you will find me opening a can. And it is the only time I will insist on a specific pasta. If you make macaroni and beans (the "beans" being dark, red kidney beans) with medium pasta shells, the beans will slip neatly into the shells like little tiny jackets, offering a perfect bean/pasta ratio. We used to tell the Heirs that I did this little trick by hand, hoping to enhance my Martyr-Mom image -- it worked fine until they turned about four or five and realized their mother didn't have that kind of attention span or patience.

Of course you can go to a restaurant and order just about the same thing for eight or nine dollars. So I plated this in my best Italian ceramic pasta bowls and put that little sprig of fresh oregano there so it would look all professional and we can pretend we're dining out -- well, all except for the 75 cents per plate price tag...and Toppergetdown's chin in my lap.

Monday, May 09, 2011

I remember Mama......'s Day

Long-time Linguini readers know the Mothers' Day drill around here now that the Heirs are older: breakfast out and I get to choose the activity for the day.

We've always had a good time, though, on our Mothers' Day excursions, in spite of the fact that antique malls, thrift stores and garden fairs are at the absolute bottom of the list of places the Heirs want to be. But they make the best of it and enjoy taunting me with descriptions of the nursing home they plan to stow me in at the first sign of senility (thankfully, they haven't been paying much attention lately...).

For this year's Mothers' Day, I had to work. Ironically, where I work had a booth at the very same garden fair I've been dragging the Heirs to for the past few years. So, instead of dragging my own sons through the foliage and flora, I got to observe other mothers dragging their sons through the flora and fauna.

Oh, dear.

Not a pretty sight.

You know how at the end of Fiddler on the Roof they show the line of people leaving Anatevka? Well, that's a Mardi Gras parade compared to the sad, despondent spectacle that marched past our display tent.

I had to hand it to the dads, though. It was rather endearing to watch them simultaneously rally the morale of the troops, all the while assuring Mom that she had nothing to feel guilty about (i.e., the Bataan Death March to which she was subjecting her offspring) and that the kids were HAPPY -- HAPPY, DO YOU HEAR ME? -- to give up their day because they LOVE Mommy; and not because Dad told them (while Mom was in bed choking down the burnt Eggo waffle) that if they didn't act HAPPY, he would force them all to use Tracphones WITH NO TEXTING CAPABILITIES.

I must point out one incident that sort of put the whole day into perspective; because, frankly, I was not at all happy about having to work on both Saturday and Sunday, particularly on Mothers' Day, though I totally recognize the need for making hay while the hay is available to be made.

The thing about promoting your nonprofit in a venue where there are wonderful things for sale is that there really is no reason for anyone to visit you other than guilt. It's just easier for them to give a wide berth or "just happening" to be looking the other way as they pass.

On the other hand, being at such a venue on Mothers' Day worked out particularly well for me, as Volunteer Coordinator at the farm. It was all summed up with one mother who marched up to the booth with a very exhausted-looking husband and two very energetic boys in tow.

"You'll put them to work?" she asked as the two boys pushed at each other to get to the front.

"Oh, there's always plenty to do," I assured her.

She smoothly removed our collection jar from the hands of her youngest. "Plenty of HARD work?"

"Well, we try to gear the task to the volunteer," I said. I don't like people thinking we're treating kids like slaves.

"Oh, they've got enough energy to handle whatever you can dish out," she said, grabbing the older boy back from behind our display.

"They do need to be there with a parent, though." I thought this would surely send her running. I get a lot of parents who think we're going to babysit their kids for four hours.

"Oh, I'll be with them." She glared down the two boys, who cowered back toward their father. "We'll get a lot done."

She signed my volunteer roster, snapped up my card and pushed her men back into the stream of pedestrian traffic. I sort of can't wait to hear from her. She was awesome.

Mostly, though, I remember the little boy whose family was perusing the booth next door. Dad came out of the booth with a baby in a back carrier and a girl toddler holding his hand. He was about to make the Wide Berth Maneuver around our display when the boy grabbed his hand and dragged him toward us saying, "Here. I want to see this."

I could tell Dad was reluctant, but his son was insistent. This is where running one of these displays gets a little touchy, especially when the parents aren't behind the idea. So I told him about growing vegetables for the food banks and explained about nutrition, expecting him to zone out once he found out we weren't  founded to ban homework or make enforced bed times illegal.

Instead he started asking questions. I had purposely left out about needing volunteers or money, but he wanted to know what he could do. His dad seemed as surprised as we were at the level of this kid's enthusiasm and began to take interest too.

Made my day, this kid.

Oh, that...and the fact that the Heir1 made dinner and Heir2 made me a cocktail when we got home and TCM was running Mom movies. So I drifted off to sleep with Irene Dunn assuring me in a Norwegian accent, "Is good -- We do not have to go to da bank."