Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Change of Culture

I love traveling to different countries because I thoroughly enjoy experiencing different cultures...the food, the language, the music, the architecture, the clothing, the people...the whole atmosphere.
But sometimes you don't have to go very far to experience a culture change...sometimes driving just 10 miles from home can take you to a whole new world.

Last night Jeff and I and all four kids (which was culture shock in itself---that all four kids would actually be home and want to go somewhere with us!!) celebrated the 4th of July in a whole new a rodeo.

We live just a few miles away from the bustling town of St. Paul, Oregon, population 425.  But this tiny town is host to one of the largest rodeos in America, which takes place every 4th of July.  And even though it's practically in my backyard, I've never attended.

This year we thought we'd do something different to celebrate the holiday...we'd try out the rodeo!  What I didn't realize is that the rodeo wouldn't be just a change of activity but a change in culture.  There was a whole new world just down the road that I never knew existed!

We all wore some form of red, white or blue.  The boys were very subtle...they never want to stand out.  We girls were a little more unabashed...Anna wore a t-shirt that was the American flag, Kate wore a white top, blue jeans, and a big red bow in her hair, and I wore a red sweater with the American flag knitted on the front and my stars and stripes flip-flops and painted my toenails red, white and blue.

Okay, so we stuck out a little.

We had been wearing shorts earlier in the day when we barbequed at my mom's place, but we changed into jeans before leaving, anticipating a change to cooler temperatures by the time the fireworks started later that night.  I didn't realize until about halfway there that Anna had also changed her shirt and a denim shirt and cowboy boots.  Out of our whole family, she was the only one who had ever attended the rodeo, and obviously she was "in the know."

I knew there would be cowboy boots, cowboy hats, bandanas, plaid shirts and Wrangler jeans, I just didn't think they'd be on everybody.  Even the teenage girls, who were definitely out to lassoo themselves a cowboy, had "westernized" their skimpy attire from short-shorts, spaghetti-strap tops and flip-flops to denim cut-off shorts, plaid spaghetti strap tops and cowboy boots.  Toddlers wore pint-sized cowboy hats, and all the men had big belt buckles to hold up their jeans under their beer bellies.  Jeff's plaid bermuda shorts and sandals looked a little odd (but at least he wasn't as bright as me in my fireworks-red sweater!).

We arrived just in time for the singing of the American anthem, complete with horse and rider carrying the American flag, running around the corral.  We paid our respects and then climbed the bleachers to our seats.

Then a very enthusiastic announcer started chattering, the music started blasting, and "BANG" the gate opened and a bronco burst into the arena.  Wow!  That was more exciting than we thought!  We looked at each other in pleasant surprise, picking up the excitement of those around us.  BANG!  Another gate swung open and dust flew as the next horse and rider kicked their way into view.  But after about three riders, we started to notice there was a lull in the action.  It took quite awhile for each rider to mount the wild-eyed bronco squeezed between the walls of the stall, get situated in the special saddle, get the reins wrapped around his hand just so, and then give the signal to go.  In between each ride, the announcer would cheerily make random comments and natter to the crowd or the silly clown running around the arena.  The music played and the people seemed entranced, but our interest was quickly waning.  Jeff leaned over and told me he was having trouble breathing.  I asked Tyler how he was doing and he said he too was tightening up.  Both of them have allergies, and this arena was the mother of all allergens!  Hay, dust, animals, clover, old covered wooden bandstand built in the early 1900s, cigarette smoke...all swirling around us like an invisible tornado.  But we held our seats and our tongues and kept watching.

The announcer became more enthusiastic the longer the delays in between riders and events.  He made all kinds of red-neck jokes...not about red-necks, for red-necks!  In other words, he was making fun of people like slickers, democrats (even though I'm not one, I sure felt like one!), and people who don't know how to ride a horse or wear a hat.  Then he moved on to jokes about the president, Indians and gays...and everyone cheered.  I have never been to a public event that large where someone openly and publically bashed politically-protected groups in a very non politically-correct manner.  We looked at each other uneasily, feeling like we must have "Portland People" stamped across our foreheads.  That was when I realized I had entered a totally foreign culture.  Some of the things the announcer said I might have even agreed with, but not in that openly mocking manner.  I wished I had a cowboy hat to pull down over my city-girl hair and red lipstick.

I do have to confess that I laughed at one was a spoof, a little skit to divert everyone while they prepared for the next event.  When the punch line of the 10-minute skit was delivered, I was surprised at how a seemingly silly and meaningless little play came together with a 1-2 punch that left everyone over the age of 40 bustin' a gut.  Now my kids looked at me like I had been looking at everyone else:  "Are you kidding, Mom?  You actually think this is funny?  Where are you from?"  I tried three times to explain it to them, but they just didn't get it.  All I could say in my defense was, "That was really funny."

When the show was almost over, we left to beat the crowd to the fireworks.  We walked into the fresh night air and the guys tried to breathe deep enough to clear away the dust and dander tickling their throats and tormenting their lungs.  We hit the midway.  The smell was intoxicating...I stopped between three booths, which happened to be all my fair favorites---curly fries, kettle corn and elephant ears---and just sniffed.  If it wasn't so late at night and I hadn't pigged out on a big 4th of July barbeque earlier that evening, I would have splurged.  But then Kate, the only one in the family with money, bought a huge sugar-cinnamon elephant ear, and we all tore that thing apart with our greedy little hands and devoured it just standing there in the middle of the lane.  When we were done, we licked our sticky fingers and wiped them on our jeans, cowboy style!  Then we waded into the stream of people flowing towards the fireworks and headed back to the clover field where we had parked the car.  We would have just watched the show from there, but we had to get the boys out of the dirt and weeds and onto some city pavement, so we drove across the street to the high school parking lot and parked there.  We huddled together in the cooling night air, which felt cooler than it should have because we had started out so hot and sticky in the trapped heat of the bandstand on a warm July day.  Then the fireworks started and it finally felt like the 4th of July...sort of.  They only shot one firework at a time, and then not even very big ones.  We stood there longer than we should have, waiting for it to get better, but it didn't.  Finally, the boys managed to pull us into the car and we hit the highway and headed home, under a very full and brilliant yellow moon...more stunning than any of the fireworks.  We laughed, talked and reminisced all the way back to the big city of Newberg, population 25,000, which for the first time ever, felt quite civilized and modern!

So we ate the food, spoke the language, listened to the music, laughed at the inside jokes, and tried for a night to assimilate into another culture.  We may have rolled our eyes a few times (and had a few eyes rolled at us!), but I think when we look back on various 4th of Julys through the years, we will always remember this one!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Time to Get Cookin'!

I am going to be super efficient today...

I need to create some make-ahead meals for summer company, I haven't blogged since last week, and I haven't blogged about cooking or included a recipe for a very long time, sooooo

I am going to blog about whipping up some make-ahead meals while I'm whipping up the make-ahead meals!

We always have TONS of company every summer...I mean, we are almost a regular Bed & Breakfast!

The first two summers we moved here we had non-stop company for the entire months of July and August, with only 4 days without guests the first summer and only 3 days without guests the second summer, and some of those visitors' stays actually overlapped!  It was a frenzied time of changing sheets, making beds, filling guest baskets, planning meals, shopping for meals, cooking meals, driving to the falls and the beach and downtown Portland and then doing that over and over and over again!  There were times our guests arrived before the sheets were even finished washing from the last guests!  There were nights when we threw a bunch of guys in a tent in our backyard so we could free up more bedroom space for adults.  There were times I had to borrow towels from my mother because we had 30 teenagers on every inch of floor in our house and I just didn't have enough to go around.  I'm sure we must have spent a couple thousand dollars on food, entertainment, gas, and the water bill and lost a lot of wages taking time off work!  But through it all, we had a blast and made some really great memories (and I've got a ton of pictures at Silver Creek Falls to prove it!).  I also gained a lot of experience and picked up some tricks along the way, and one thing I learned was how to cook smart.

So, to get ready for the summer guests of 2012, I thought I'd make a couple favorites and share one of my tried-and-true dishes with you (but I have to admit that I'm a little afraid one of my regular blog readers is going to recognize the Italian strata when she comes to visit me!)

Today I made strata two a savory dish, Italian Strata, and the other a sweet dish, Baked French Toast.  Both freeze beautifully and both taste great.  Both are worthy of company when served with fresh local fruit and excellent coffee.

If you don't know it, a strata is an egg-milk-and-bread dish with endless variations.  It is served hot, usually for breakfast/brunch but when combined with a salad it can be lunch, a light supper, or even dessert!

The Base
a great loaf of bread, 8 eggs and 3 cups of milk

The Seasonings
for savory add Italian seasoning, a dash of tobasco sauce, dry mustard, red pepper flakes...
for sweet, add vanilla, cinnamon, orange zest, nutmeg...

The Add-In's
for savory try pre-cooked sausage, bacon or ham, sauteed onions and peppers, spinach, sundried tomato, pre-cooked broccoli or asparagus tips, crab or shrimp, 2 cups of cheese (cheddar, swiss, jack, feta, mozza)
for sweet try diced apple, raisins, berries, cream cheese

The Toppings
for savory toss on some fresh tomato, a sprinkle of parmesan, fresh herbs, guacamole
for sweet drizzle on some warm maple syrup, add a dollop of vanilla yogurt, scatter some toasted nuts, sprinkle on some granola...if dessert, try caramel sauce and ice cream!

Now watch how easy this is:

1.  Grab a 9 x 13 baking dish.  Either butter it for flavor or spritz it with olive oil for health.

Use the wrapper from the cube of butter!
Works great and no waste
I love my oil spritzer!

2.  Slice or tear your bread.  Be sure to buy excellent quality, artisan bread.  Day-old is actually better, so often you can get it for a good price.  For my baked french toast I used challah bread.  This is a wonderful bread, very soft and slightly sweet.  Also delicious is a loaf of cinnamon-raisin bread.  I sliced the bread and arranged the slices in the baking dish "shingle" style.  For the Italian strata, I used a loaf of artisan French bread and tore it by hand into rough, bite-sized chunks.  An Italian loaf or pugliese or even cheese bread is also a yummy choice.  Don't use ciabatta, as it's pretty chewy.  Don't use the crusts if they are tough.  And only use sourdough if you really, really like the taste.

3.  Mix the batter.  So simple, just beat 8 eggs and add 3 cups of milk.  If you're making the baked French toast or a dessert strata (very much like bread pudding), you can swap the milk out and use half-n-half, if you prefer a richer taste and texture.

Brown eggs or white?  Just a matter of what kind of
feed the chicken eats!

4.  Add the seasonings.  For my Italian strata I added a couple dashes of tobasco sauce, a teaspoon of dry mustard, and a tablespoon of Italian seasoning.  For the French toast I added a tablespoon of vanilla, real cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg.  Give the batter another beating to incorporate the seasonings.

5.  Sprinkle on the add-ins.  For the Italian strata I sauteed onions, peppers, garlic scapes and sweet Italian sausage (I used chicken, a little bit healthier than pork!).  Then I added shredded colby-jack cheese.  For the French toast, I simply scattered some golden raisins across the bread.
This I's olive oil infused with garlic,
great for lightly sauteeing veggies (and I
have a friend who likes to pop popcorn with it
and then sprinkle on butter and parmesan cheese)

Betcha don't know what this is!
Garlic new discovery.  They are the tops of garlic
cloves (sort of like the green of a green onion).  They have a
mild garlic flavor that is perfect when you want just a hint of flavor.

6.  Pour on the batter and soak.  Pour slowly so the bread can absorb the batter, otherwise you might end up with a spill-over!  Once all the batter is poured, cover the dish with foil and refrigerate 8 hours (all day if you make it in the morning or overnight if you make it at night).  Then transfer it to the freezer.  Tip:  Take a Sharpie and write on top of the foil what the dish is and baking instructions, so when you go to the freezer when you're company comes you'll know what you're taking out and what to do with it!

7.  Top It!  When it's time to serve the dish, take it out of the freezer the night before and let it thaw in the oven.  Set your oven for timed bake, so it will come on automatically and you can sleep an extra half an hour!  It takes an hour and a half to bake and another 15 minutes to "set," so you'll have plenty of time to slice some fruit, make coffee, and set the table nicely.  When it comes out of the oven, you can add toppings, if you like.  To my Italian strata, I will top it with a sprinkle of grated parmesan, fresh tomato slices and fresh-cracked pepper.  For my baked French toast, I will sprinkle on some toasted pecans and a little homemade granola and then I'll drizzle it with warm maple syrup.  Tip:  For amazing syrup, use grade B real maple syrup.  It's darker and richer and more flavorful.  Then add 4 tablespoons of butter and heat it up.  Pour it all over the French toast.

And that's it!  Two great dishes ready to go.  And now here are some delicious variations for you to try, and hopefully these ideas will stimulate your imagination to create your own yummy combinations!

Classic - diced ham, broccoli and cheddar
Greek - sundried tomato, artichoke hearts, black olives, spinach, feta cheese
Lorraine - crumbled bacon, sauteed onion, swiss cheese
Country - diced baby reds (pre-cooked), colby cheese, crumbled breakfast sausage
BLT - bacon, leek and fresh tomato, mozza cheese
Mexican - ground beef w/taco seasoning, cheddar or cotija cheese, onion and top with pico de gallo and avocado
Seafood - shrimp or crab, swiss cheese, green onion
Veggie - sauteed zucchini, asparagus, peppers, onion, spinach and pepper-jack cheese, top with fresh tomato
Berries and Cream - fresh berries and little cubes of cream cheese, serve with berry syrup
Apple-Cinnamon - dice tart apples and sautee in butter.  Add cinnamon and brown sugar and then mix with bread cubes.
Decadent Dessert - Try using apple fritters or cinnamon rolls in place of plain bread, then top with warm caramel sauce and ice cream
Add caption