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Memorial Day cookout

We are hosting an all-day cookout starting at noon tomorrow.

The yard is at peak gorgeousness thanks to Weezy, and the weather looks like sunny, 70 and dry (see also, drought). The evenings lately are foggy and almost cold but still enjoyable if you bring a light jacket.

What we told our guests was, bring a single item for yourself that you want me to throw on the gas grill. We've got nibbles, sides and beverages covered.

So we have wine coming out our ears (I told you the story of my editor moonlighting as a wine reviewer for the Enthusiast, right?), and I picked up a mixed pack of craft brews at Costco, as well as fizzy waters and drinks yesterday. And I made some spiced iced tea this morning. We'll toss all of those in a giant washtub full of ice in the yard.

I made a big batch of heart-attack potato salad this morning, and one pal is bringing a broccoli kale green salad.

For nibbles, we've got sliced cheeses, olives, crackers, chips and salsa.

For my grill protein, I'm brining a whole chicken that I cut into large pieces, and will use the Cooks Illustrated recipe for smoking it on my grill with a sweet-spicy glaze.

For dessert, I'm putting on a pot of chocolate fondue. I'll cut strawberries and bananas, and got a pound cake at Costco. Weezy is making Rice Krispy treats which we'll also cut into dipping pieces. People can help themselves to everything all day.

We invited about 50 people, and think 20-25 of them are coming, based on the RSVPs. If we need another side dish, which I doubt, I made and froze a batch of Ina Garten's orzo with roasted veggies.

Other than setting it all out and manning the grill occasionally, it's going to be a lovely easy party to manage and we're looking forward to good company all day and evening.

Eating our way through Vegas, the rest

On the Saturday of our Vegas trip, Jeff and Mary from Twisted Oak arrived and the foodie fun multiplied.

We met them at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's signature bistro at the Venetian. My memories of the exact foods ordered are getting fuzzy now, but I remember the foie gras on toast points was phenomenal, and the salmon-in-a-jar, ditto. The wines were incredible, and Gary, our waiter, was in on the fun from start to finish.

The next night found us at Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay's place, where we confounded the waitstaff by announcing we wanted to order the entire appetizer side of the menu.

When they got over being flummoxed, the dishes started coming out. A woman at the table next door, at dinner with her husband, delightedly asked about some of the dishes and even popped over at our invitation to sample some.

Standouts for me were the shrimp tamale with a rich corn sauce, the teeny tiny lobster tacos, and the duck tacos, which Jen is still raving about today. Then Jeff, at the suggestion of the lady at the next table, had to try the signature pork medallions on the menu and ordered those. That was probably the best pork tenderloin any of us had ever eaten. It melted in the mouth.

We waddled out of Mesa Grill.

Next was Julian Serrano, Spanish tapas. We ordered two flights of the Introduction to Sherries, and our sommelier (it's a small world!) was delighted when she found out who Jeff and Mary are because her mother once lived very near to Twisted Oak and was a big fan. She had explored the Rubber Chicken National Forest and knew their wines well.

The white anchovies were delectable, and Jeff, ever on the hunt for foie gras, ordered their seared version and enjoyed it muchly.

I should mention the brunches. At Paris Las Vegas where Jeff and Mary stayed, we had brunch on Mothers Day at Hexx. I had an enormous ham and cheese croissant and the largest and most diverse fruit bowl I've ever been given in a breakfast place, with a dozen different types of cut fruit at peak ripeness. At the end of our meal, the waiter presented us females with a rose and a little box of their special chocolates.

Another day, Jen and I went to Yardbird Southern Kitchen, whose chef was a James Beard finalist and voted Best New Eatery in Vegas last year. Yardbird (tag line, Run Chicken Run) is all about the fried chicken. They brine it for 27 hours, then give it the buttermilk and batter treatment. The result is crispy yet tender skin, and moist flavorful meat.

Jen and I had ours atop a homemade biscuit with gravy and with moist delicious scrambled egg on top.

They serve nearly all chicken dishes with a side of fresh watermelon chunks, and they've dusted the watermelon with chili powder and fine-chopped basil. I was dubious but it was brilliant! Cool and refreshing with a little spice-herbal bite.

Our final meal in Vegas was sushi at Yellowtail in Bellagio, over which we spent three hours tasting small pieces of heaven. The pacing of the kitchen and waitstaff was unhurried and glorious, and I think we went four or five rounds around the menu.

Jeff had the full attention of our Sake Sommelier, Yukiko, who read our desires perfectly and brought out several different little bamboo carafes through the evening as each course changed our palates.

All of their sashimi tuna bites were superb, and the Kobe beef tartar was delicate and exquisite. We also had a dainty crab tempura that rocked.

I think that many people dismiss Vegas as a simple, brash gambling hub. These days, it's not only full of wonderful shows, shops, salons and other grown-up entertainments, it's a Food Mecca.

And we took full advantage to have the foodie adventure of a lifetime.

Eating our way through Vegas--Batali

On our second night in Vegas, Jen and I went to see the Blue Man Group, performing at the Monte Carlo hotel. It was great good fun.

But the Monte Carlo had no restaurants to tempt us for our late dinner afterward, so we went back to our Venetian hotel, up to the second floor, and explored possibilities in the Grand Canal shops and "streets."

Side note: the fake Venice created by the hotel is actually quite lovingly realistic. You wind your way through cobblestone streets dotted with tiny bridges over the canal, which has actual gondolas gliding along filled with tourists. The gondoliers occasionally burst into song, singly or in groups, and are quite talented.

You sometimes see white pedestals in your path, inscrutable until you see a "living statue" dressed all in white, standing on one and posing perfectly still while tourists snap pictures.

In "San Marco Square" we found Otto, the pizzeria run by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich (Lidia's son), and stopped for our late supper.

The center of the dining room is taken up with a lovely circular marble bar, and in the center of that is an octagonal tower of warm wood and glass. I slowly realized that the tower was not just a pretty furnishing. It is a low-light, temperature-and-humidity-controlled salumi cabinet. And the "bartenders" were not serving drinks, but slicing portions of perfectly-cured fine meats to go onto appetizer plates or finished pizzas.

They serve only craft beers and wines here. I ordered a rose Prosecco from Italy, and Jen ordered the Bastianich rose wine. Now, I had the Bastianich red wines way back when Lidia was touring with one of her cookbooks and the family were first launching the wines. They were, fine. No great shakes. But this rose was truly outstanding. I highly recommend you search it out if you like roses!

We split the mushroom bruschetta, just perfect. Jen had a pasta dish she raved about, and I had a small pizza Carbonara, with prosciutto from that glorious salumi cabinet and a small drizzle of fresh egg in concentric circles. The crust reminded me very much of the thin cold-risen crust at my beloved A16 in San Francisco. Fantastic pizza.

Our second fabulous Vegas meal was serenaded by minstrels doing light opera in the duplicate San Marco Square.

The magic continued...

Eating our way through Vegas, Boulud

With the legacy from my Mom, in addition to sensible retirement investing, I started a travel fund.

Since my passport is not renewed just yet, I made this first vacation domestic, and chose Vegas because Mom and I had gone a few times together, many years ago, and it was one of her favorite places to play.

I took my best pal Jen, and booked into the Venetian for a week.

And now that Vegas is such a food Mecca, we really ate our way through wonderful places all week.

Our first find was the DB Brasserie, Daniel Boulud's casual French place on the casino floor at Venetian. It was 4pm on our first day, we'd been there several hours and were hungry.

They have a Happy Hour in the bar lounge with beautiful small plates and exquisite drinks to try.

We had chick pea "fries"--formed rectangles of goodness made from chick peas, coated in chick pea flour, deep fried and served with a delicate flavorful red sauce for dipping.

And the house Caesar salad, the memory of which still makes me smile. Jen proclaimed when I urged her to try it, "I didn't come to Vegas to eat salads!" But once she'd had her first taste, she inhaled more with glee. It was probably the best Caesar that either of us ever had.

And finally, we split a small hamburger, which was a perfect medium rare and beautiful bit of prime beef, topped with Gruyere cheese and some kind of incredibly happy pig (I think it was a bit of pork belly), a house sauce, lettuce and tomato.

The meal was proof that the simplest foods, with quality ingredients in good hands, can be pure delight.

The Brasserie was the rare place we repeated on the trip, me going back once more and Jen twice. With so many choices in Vegas, we tried otherwise to adhere to two rules: not to repeat a restaurant (Boulud, a lobster place and the Bouchon Bakery at the foot of our elevator were the exceptions); and not to eat at any old chain whose food we could get at home.

Two more notable dishes at Boulud. We had a salmon rillette that was composed of lightly cooked fresh salmon, pressed together with good smoked salmon into pretty little round cakes, topped with creme fraiche and a sprig of dill, served with croutons of baguette.

And a pasta dish with handmade spaghetti noodles featuring spring peas. They had pulled the fresh peas out of their pods, blanched them soft and pulsed them into a sauce with cream. They took the tender pods, cooked them just past al dente, and tossed them with the pasta and sauce. It was outstanding.

More reports to come from this awesome foodie adventure!


Given that my passport was expired, I'm doing domestic travel this year. Starting with the next ten days!

I'm taking JRo and we're going to Vegas for a week of indulgences. After much searching, we found a suite at the Venetian that we like. Of the amenities we looked for, the most amusing was the in-room coffee. The Venetian doesn't offer it because they are coffee snobs; they don't believe you can make a decent cup on a small drip brewer in your room. They source a unique South American bean they liked on which they have a monopoly, and they roast it fresh every day in their own roasting room and serve it to guests. The booking agent on the phone waxed rhapsodic over the stuff, bemoaning the fact that they won't even let employees buy it to take home.

Our suite has a lovely bathroom and sleep areas, and the long room ends in a large sunken living room with a wall of windows looking out to the pretty lights of the town.

And it came with free show tickets to Rock of Ages, the musical full of 1980s Rock-pop tunes which will be fun. We're also seeing Blue Man Group, Penn & Teller, and O, the water show by Cirque du Soleil. We've paced our bookings so that we have a day off between each show date to relax.

The Bellagio, across the street from our hotel, is an art museum in many forms, with installations throughout, and we're going to explore it. One restaurant inside it is called Picasso and has seven original works hanging on its dining room walls. There is a full art museum as well and it's carrying a special exhibit from Faberge this month.

We're bringing swimsuits and books and magazines and will definitely spend some time poolside. Another reason we chose the Venetian is that the pools are guests-only. Some of the Vegas hotels have pool complexes that are more like giant family water parks and they allow day users in for a small fee. We wanted something a little quieter.

And I'll find a modest salon one day and fool around with girly stuff like hair and nails.

I was visiting Jeff and Mary at Twisted Oak in Calaveras in early April and mentioned that we were going to Vegas, and it turns out this is their favorite playground. They started giving us all kinds of great tips on where to eat and what to see, and one chat led to another, and now they are joining us for the fun. They'll arrive on Saturday and have booked some of our shows for us because they know just ::exactly:: where we should sit for maximum enjoyment. :-)

Once back in CA on the 14th, we've got a day off for laundry, and then we are packing up girls and dogs and heading down to Paso Robles for a weekend wine festival.

I really needed this total unplugged from work break and can't wait to start!

The house, or, one thing leads to another

When deciding how to put myself into improvements on Weezy's house, of course I looked to the kitchen. Weezy does not cook, so its rundown state was not a great concern to her.

I bought a new cooktop and a dishwasher. And when the nice Sears guys came to install them --I expected this, but Weezy was unpleasantly surprised-- they told us that internal upgrades would be needed before they could get them in. The old appliances were so old that the electrical was hard-wired into them, whereas newer ones merely plug into modern electrical outlets installed to receive them.

In addition, the dishwasher needed a new plumbing valve, and some floorboards would have to be removed in order to get it out. It had to come down, then out to avoid damaging the lip overhang of the tile countertop.

George from Sears ("Don't tell my bosses") did the electrical and a slight bit of carpentry and got the cooktop installed. Bless him.

With a referral from Lori who works at a construction company, next we brought in Tom the Electrician. Tom spent an entire day here, not only on the electrical for the dishwasher but also on small jobs all about the house that it needed. He installed all of Weezy's ceiling fans, some outdoor lighting, and upgraded sockets to three-prong grounded outlets. With the helper he'd brought along, he also got the old dishwasher (circa 1985) out.

Tom will be back for round 2 of little things we need him to do, but meanwhile today, at long last, the Sears guys come back to insert the new dishwasher.

I also bought a wine refrigerator, stocked it with bubbly, whites and rose wines, and a new patio table (Weezy bought the matching chairs).

Our first dinner party with all of the improvements is Friday night. Friend Thomas is visiting from D.C.

The Mom legacy

Sis, the Trustee of Mom's estate, paid out the bulk of it in thirds to herself, me and Bro at the top of April, prudently holding in a goodly amount to cover any last taxes, bills and expenses which might be presented against it in the year to come.

I banked mine and when the banking dust settled, immediately paid off all remaining credit cards (I had it down to three by then), and the car. Rendering myself debt free for the first time since I was about 20. :-) And that was a pretty marvelous feeling.

I put a few thousand into improvements on this house, for my own comfort but also as a payback for the generous terms on which Weezy has opened her home and her life to me and my dogs. She's the best of friends.

I opened a travel savings account, and then with the help of a financial advisor at my credit union, plunged all the rest into a portfolio with tax-deferred earnings to be my retirement nest egg.

And at work, I increased my contributions into the company 401k plans to their maximum.

That done, now I can play. The travel fund is being replenished with automatic withdrawals every month. My financial advisor thinks of it as my Emergency fund, but to me it's the travel fund, giving me the freedom to travel more, as I've long wished to do.

It's still kind of overwhelming, this unexpected inheritance. I find myself sending little prayers of thanks to Mom each time I'm able to do something that her gift made possible, even as small as buying dinner for a friend.

And the daily comfort and joy of her other legacy to me, the adored little Minnie, our own bouncy princess of a dog, is priceless.

So thank you, Mom. I love you, I miss you, we all still hate that you left us so soon and so fast. I hope I am treating all the gifts you gave me, in ways that would make you proud.

Where did April go?

This month has been a whirlwind, mostly quite pleasant.

At bookstore, after the March event tied to one of the writers' groups went FUBAR, I realized I was not serving them well, and at last, passed their running back to the store. Sam will take care of them now, and they will be better off with someone who is on the ground there to help in an instant.

I worked each Monday night this month hosting individual events, to cover pal Dana who was so generous about covering me throughout the difficult 1st quarter of this year. And I'll be able to keep my hand in with a few events each month.

Worked a PBS weekend. New producer at the auction has done a nice job spiffing it up and making the work and flow of the show much easier on the crew. I think we broke some new records raising funds for the station.

Work at the office has been a joy. With the heavy event season behind us, the office and especially my desk have quieted enough to allow me to catch up, tidy some work that has long needed it, and give good attention to our new data services, to the ad reps with their sales efforts, and more.

The new laptop the company bought me declined to speak to the old MS programs we carried over, with the result that I lost all my historical emails, calendar and work contacts in a rather spectacular meltdown of the email program. It was rather liberating, in some ways.

All in all, work on every front is going smoother, but I'm still very glad to be taking a vacation in May!

Soothing Sunday

Sunday was a lovely day that smoothed out all my ruffled feelings over the rough Saturday.

First Leila came over for breakfast and stayed through lunch. Though she's not fighting fit yet, she is much recovered from the alarming cold and is getting out. We spent several happy hours relaxed on the sunny patio, nibbling food and catching up on our news while watching the four dogs play heartily all about the yard.

Then I went to meet beloved Foodwinos Denny and Christian for dinner at A16. They've been in temporary quarters just one block from the restaurant for the last several weeks, while their flat across the city was being renovated.

I took along new friend Gisela, a German architect from Hanover whom I met through work. She built from scratch and runs the successful American arm of a huge German closure company. She's eager to meet more people and to throw herself into food and wine so I've been bringing her along where I thought she might enjoy herself.

Gisela and Christian hit it off right away, both German and just delighted with each other. Without being rude in the least, they frequently and happily conversed in their native tongue throughout the wonderful meal, while Denny and I caught up on our news and she told me of the delights of the new kitchen they are installing in the flat.

The huge success of the evening, great food and company, were just the thing to end the weekend brilliantly.

A bumpy night

I finally reconnected with bookstore, where friends have been covering for me these last few months, and worked an event on Saturday night.

The LCW, our most active group of local writers, gets two slots each month for book release events for members. LWM, the leader, booked in two poets for this one. Our Dana usually handles set ups and the bookstore side of these events. LWM usually handles promotion, brings food and drink, and plays host and introduces the authors.

On March 9, I got a note from LWM that she was winging off to Spain, could we handle the event hosting for her? And thanks muchly. I sent that note to Dana, who put out a call for help because he was also assigned to the National Geographic photogs event on the same night.

I stepped up. A nice little poetry reading, I thought. What an easy and pleasant way to re-enter the bookstore life.

What no one told us, was that these two lady poets had worked their tails off inviting family and friends. 135 people came. I had set the room for 40, worried it might be too generous because we don't like authors to see empty seats.

In addition, one of the poets was an octogenarian and so were most of her friends. We had walkers, canes, wheelchairs. Every one of them, of course, had to be accommodated properly.

We flowed out of the room in all directions, knocking down walls to the used book room, opening door to the patio, anything we could do until we literally ran out of chairs. Dana and I hastily tried to set up the portable sound system (the room usually doesn't need one), and fiddled for 20 minutes on it, failing. The frustration was huge, but I smiled and soothed, repeat many times.

Giving up on that, I launched it. Gave my name, told them all I took full responsibility for the fact that the room was not ready for a group of their size. Told them all credit was due to the poets for bringing together such a large group. Joked that I didn't think Billy Collins had drawn such a group when he presented. Gave very brief bios of the two women, and let it roll. Whew.

After that the reading went very well. The poets did a great job presenting, it was a loving crowd, many books sold. I know for a fact that the elder poet was still planning post-event nasty notes to LWM and to bookstore but was mollified by the success of the evening. I don't blame her. We and the LCW totally dropped the ball after she worked so well to bring in a crowd.

The Bumpy Night was not over. After cleanup of a fairly epic mess, we straightened the two rooms and patio we'd mangled and looked to close up store. Bookseller announced that manager Nick had to drive a customer to hospital.

One of the octogenarian customers from poetry audience had returned from his car without his cane, intending to have a word with manager about poor event set up. He tripped, went face first into giant plant container made of wrought iron, and ripped and ruined his nose and surrounding tissue. I'm told the look of it and the blood loss were truly alarming. Nick bundled man and wife into their own car and got them to emergency room.

I went and fetched Nick back from hospital to bookstore so he could get his own vehicle and head home. He said the man was stable, coherent, ever so nice, and was undergoing emergency plastic surgery to repair the damage.

Owner of bookstore called me next day for a recount of the evening. Of course. She'd already talked to injured customer to see how he was doing and he was well and still quite nice about the whole situation.

When LWM of the writers gets back from Spain, we definitely have to sit her down and fix communications problems.