A Blast From My Past

As I was doing some random searching to earn Swagbucks this past weekend, I came across the listing for our former beach house in San Clemente, California. Apparently the house had been on the market for a while, and the pictures taken then allowed me to get a look at the current interior.

Oh boy, did the memories come flooding back!

My mom’s younger brother, my Uncle William, designed and built the house in 1955. My dad occasionally went on the weekends to help with the construction; I remember going with him once and staying in a little motel with a kitchenette that had a bottle opener attached to the side of one of the cabinets which fascinated me. The house was considered very modern, classic mid-century design at the time. It was well built, and remains stylish to this day. It’s even had a moment of fame, serving as a location in the 1986 Clint Eastwood movie, Heartbreak Ridge, as the house Marsha Mason lived in.

My aunt and uncle started their family (eventually five children) in the house soon after it was finished, but a couple of years later they moved to another location in San Clemente and my grandparents bought the house from them along with the vacant lot next door. The house became a vacation home for extended family, but because we lived nearest to San Clemente our family used the house the most over the years, sometimes moving there for entire summers and hosting neighbors, friends, and relatives from my dad’s side. We grew a large garden in part of the vacant lot for many years, and played croquet on the rest. The beach was a short walk from the house – we’d walk down in the morning, then back up the hill for lunch and a short rest, and repeat for second session in the afternoon. Almost every evening after dinner Mom would drive us back down to beachcomb and see what we could find as we walked from the overpass to the pier and back.

Overpass (or T-Street) Beach and the San Clemente pier.

The house largely looks the same inside and out, with even some of the colors the same, and the current valuation of over a million dollars is unsurprising based on housing prices in southern California. My grandmother sold the house in 1971 for $43,000. President Nixon had purchased his “western White House” in San Clemente in 1969 and sent property values in the area soaring, and Grandma felt it was time to sell. The house has been owned for the past 50 years by the same people who bought it from her.

The new owners carpeted the house, but it used to have soft red linoleum floors throughout, all the better for sweeping up the sand we dragged back from the beach every day. The kitchen has been remodeled, and while the space appears to work better the decor is a poor fit (in my opinion) with the the beautiful mid-century design of the house. However, the wicker stools at the kitchen counter look like the same ones that were there when we used the house! In the real estate photos the interior is filled with furniture and other stuff while it was uncluttered and minimally decorated when we used it.

My grandparents were parsimonious to a fault, and as I was going through the photos I laughed as I remembered all the things in the house that had needed repairs but that my grandparents (especially my grandmother) chose to ignore because they didn’t want to spend any more than absolutely necessary on the house. For example, the front door became difficult to lock at one point, but instead of having it fixed we were instead told to leave it alone and just stop using the door. It was the same with the bathroom in the outside cabana bedroom, the central fireplace, a wonky light fixture on a wall, and closet doors that fell off their railings. We just stopped using them.

The most powerful memory I have of the beach house didn’t come until after I closed the link the other day: my grandfather died in that house. My grandparents had wanted to go look at it one day in the summer of 1959, and brought me along with them – I was seven years old, in between first and second grade. Grandma and I knew the whole way down to San Clemente that something was wrong because Grandpa was driving erratically at times and kept complaining about not feeling well. When we finally got to the house (a miracle, in retrospect), he laid down on a bed and said he was going to take a nap, but at some point he got up and went into the bathroom, collapsed, and died there, apparently from heart failure. My grandmother broke down the door and found him. Her first action was to calmly ask me to sit in the corner of the sofa in the living room and stay there until she came back. I was an obedient child and did as I was told, and had absolutely no idea anything was seriously wrong. She moved my grandfather into the front bedroom, laid him on the bed, and shut the door, then came and asked me to remain on the sofa while she went next door for a few minutes (I’m guessing because I would have heard the phone conversation in the living room). Grandma came back shortly and sat with me until my parents arrived a couple of hours later to take me home. I remember how normal my grandmother was the whole time, never acting in any way that scared or worried me, and telling me that Grandpa was resting. All of her efforts went toward making me feel safe and calm in spite of what she had to do and what she must have been feeling. There was a big car outside when I left with my parents, and later in life I figured out it was the hearse that had arrived to pick up my grandfather’s body. It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned my beloved grandfather had died; my dad told me when I woke up.

We continued to use the house until 1971, and other than my grandfather’s death, the beach house holds only good memories for me: happy summers walking to and from the beach each day and early evening beachcombing walks; fires in the living room fireplace every evening to take away the chill coming off the Pacific; looking out from the kitchen sink to Catalina Island in the distance (that view now blocked by the house that was built on the vacant lot); reading Nancy Drew mysteries and doing big jigsaw puzzles checked out from the San Clemente library; fresh vegetables from our garden; listening to Dodger baseball games in the evening on a little transistor radio (there was no TV there); croquet tournaments and all the other games my siblings and I invented to entertain ourselves.

It was a magical place.

Staying Healthy: Eating & Exercise (4/4 – 4/10)

If you eat a croissant or pastry for breakfast every morning it doesn’t matter how much you walk: you will gain weight.

I read this somewhere before we visited France in September of 2018. It was written with tongue in cheek, but turned out to be more than prescient, and in retrospect the author should have also mentioned that it would apply equally to eating two scoops of yummy gelato every day in Italy, pastel de nata (egg tarts) in Portugal; TimTams of every flavor in Australia and New Zealand, KitKats and other treats in Japan, scones with clotted cream and jam (or ginger nuts and shortbread) in the UK, and so on. Brett and I walked miles every day during our travels but really didn’t give a thought to what we were eating or how much, and we both ended up gaining A LOT of weight. Getting rid of that extra weight has been our main effort this past year and we still have more to go.

Portion control is king here these days. Everything we eat these days gets measured, from rice to pasta to sauces, dressings, pot roast, sausages, or a piece of cake for dessert. The food scale, Weight Watchers ladles, and measuring cups and spoons are used every day. The only things that aren’t measured are vegetables. I’ve been recording and tracking my meals and snacks for nearly a year usingMyFitnessPal, which has the most extensive food lists I can find, and it was initially shocking to see how much I had been overeating before. Brett doesn’t track his food, but has me monitor his portion sizes most of the time. He is also eating far, far less these days.

There is no food off the table for us, but if we want to have something it has to fit into our daily calorie allotment. Although the photos below might make it look like our portions are large, they’ve all been carefully measured and weighed and are probably smaller than imagined. We love having dessert each evening, but these days that means a tiny two-inch square piece of cake versus the bigger pieces we used to serve ourselves, or just 1/2 cup of ice cream instead of a big bowl. For a while we were enjoying a gin & tonic four nights a week until we decided we’d rather apply the calories to something more nutritious, so these days we’re back to drinks on Friday and Saturday evenings only. There are no more assumptions or guessing, and there’s no more mindless eating either – we know each day what we’ll be having on the next so that we’re not tempted to overdo it.

I’ve lost over thirty pounds over the last year and Brett’s lost over eighteen. We were both miserable carrying around the extra pounds, and have accepted that to remain healthy going forward, even as we travel, we need to stay vigilant, not just about what we eat but especially of how much. We don’t want to go back down the path we were on before, so while we’ll continue to allow ourselves to eat everything and anything, moderation will remain our guiding force.

Here’s what we ate for dinner this past week:

Sunday: Turkey club sandwiches with avocado

Monday: Spinach quiche with chèvre and gruyere; roasted zucchini

Tuesday: Guadalajara quesadillas made with spinach

Wednesday: Zaru soba with dipping sauce; hayayako (chilled tofu); cucumber spears

Thursday: Barbecue turkey & bacon mini pizzas

Friday: California roll salad

Saturday: Barbecue pulled pork sandwiches; coleslaw

Desserts this past week were tapioca pudding for three days followed by devil’s food cake with orange buttercream. The cake will be our dessert all next week as well which makes me happy because the combination of chocolate and orange is so good.

Here’s the plan for dinners next week (in no particular order):

  • Chicken and vegetable soup
  • Mississippi pot roast
  • French dip sandwiches
  • Spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Zucchini frittata
  • Mini pizzas
  • Egg roll in a bowl

xxx

Perched on top of a hill, Kukuiolono Park provides lots of beautiful views, but this one looking east to Hau’upa and down at Poipu and Koloa is always my favorite.

Somewhat surprisingly, it turned out to be a good week for walking even if the weather has sketchy at times. We both walked last Sunday, and then took Monday off (surgery day). I walked on my own on Tuesday and Wednesday (3.5 miles each day), and Brett felt good enough to walk again beginning Thursday, albeit at a slower pace, so we walked separately that day and on Friday, with him getting in a little over two miles, while I continued to do 3.5 miles. On Saturday we walked together for most of the time, but I ended up doing an extra lap while he rested in the car. We enjoyed absolutely gorgeous weather on Thursday and Friday, with lovely breezes to keep things cool. However, we were able to imagine those days how it’s going to feel again in the coming months when the breezes die down and the heat and humidity crank back up again. We’re already thinking we’ll start later in the afternoon than we are now when that happens, hopefully because temperatures will be coming down as the evening sets in, but also because we can walk out on the golf course more often. The last time to tee off is 4:30 p.m. and by 5:30 most are done or on their last holes, and where we like to walk is near the first four holes.

Brett rested in the park’s Japanese garden while I walked this past week.

We’re coming on a year of walking at Kukuiolono Golf Course and Park. I distinctly remember the first day we went there, and climbing the hill up to the clubhouse as I thought I was going to pass out, but these days I can climb that hill easily and even do it twice in a row without breathing hard. We are still discovering new walking routes there, and love that all it takes is changing up the order of the sections we walk to make our walks fresh again. We have become friends with other walkers there and often stop to chat and catch up with each other. We feel very blessed to have found the park for a walking venue – it has yet to get boring.

Sunday Morning 4/11/2021: Rest & Recovery

There were some nice sunsets this week, but other evenings all the sun provided was a glow over the horizon.

Good morning! Aloha kakahiaka!

Happy Laura getting her second dose of the COVID vaccine. This one was easier than the first.

We had Brett at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. on Monday morning, he was into surgery by 8:00, and ready for pick-up at noon! Everything went according to plan, and his post-op bloodwork showed the results all were hoping for. I left Brett at the hospital before 8:00 a.m. – the anesthesiologist gave Brett something to help “relax” him but it knocked him right out – so it was a good time for me to go. I drove home and took care of things here (sleep was impossible though) until I got the word a little before noon that he was ready to be picked up. On the back way into town I stopped and picked up a prescription for him, and then went to the vaccine clinic to see if they would take me earlier than my appointment for my second dose. The answer was “sure,” and other than a very slightly sore arm for a couple of hours that day I had no side effects from the second dose. Brett has spent the week resting and relaxing – the surgery knocked him for a bigger loop than he imagined it would – but he’s pretty much back to a normal level of activity now. We’re back to our daily walks, but still don’t have any desire to get back out in the thick of things here. Visitor numbers are ticking up every day – we’re sort of dreading the farmers’ market this coming week.

It looks warm and inviting, but it’s actually quite chilly out there.

The week started off cold and very windy and it stayed cool all week. The pattern for the week was rain still dripping off the house when we woke up, but with surprisingly blue skies and sunshine with cool temperatures outside. By late morning clouds would roll in to a point where we started to wonder if we’d be able to walk that day because it could be raining. With fingers crossed we would go up to the park every day to discover that it was mostly sunny and beautiful up there with a cool breeze – perfect walking weather! Yeah! After sunset though the temperature would start dropping again, and by the time we go to bed it was downright chilly and often raining once again. I don’t remember it ever feeling this cold when we were here before, but I think the house we lived in previously was better insulated, and it was also designed in a way that air did not move through the house (no breeze flowing through the house to cool things off). We experience much more wind where we live now (the other house sat on a lot with hills on two sides that blocked any wind), and the windows in our apartment are arranged for maximum airflow. I’m trying to appreciate the cold as much as I can because I know hot and humid weather is coming and I’ll be wishing then for cooler and breezier days.

We’ve missed the old school local vibe of the Tip Top Cafe.

Less than two years from now we will, God willing, be on the road once again. Sometimes it seems like such a long way off, but then I remind myself we’re already into April of this year and how did we get here so quickly? There seems to always be something happening or coming up that moves the calendar along faster than we imagined. Brett celebrates his birthday toward the end of this month, and now that we’re vaccinated we’re planning to celebrate with breakfast at the TipTop Cafe in Lihue. We’ve missed being able to eat there, but it just didn’t feel safe before (and they were closed when when we arrived and for several months afterwards). Anyway, his birthday will be here before we know it, April will finish, and then we’ll be on to the next month. I want to lose an additional six pounds this year, but am beginning to wonder if I can to accomplish that goal – the year seems to be speeding by while the weight loss has slowed to a crawl. While we have much to look forward to in the next two years, I know time is going to go faster than we can imagine now, and before we know it it will be YaYu’s graduation, for our fall trip to Japan, and finally to pack up and move on to our next Big Adventure.

This morning I am:

  • Reading: Just as I finished When Will There Be Good News?, the third book in the Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson, two more books came available from the library at the same time. So, I’m reading two books again, with my daytime book The Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz, and my nighttime reading the fourth Jackson Brodie book, Started Early, Took My Dog (which I think is the last book of the series). Yet another book came off of hold mid-week, but I was able to have it held for another week or so until I can get one of the other books finished.
  • Listening to: For all my ranting above about how cold it’s been this past week, this morning is lovely! The loud winds of this past week are soft breezes, and it’s actually warm enough that instead of wanting a blanket, we’ve opened the French doors. Brett’s knocking around in the kitchen putting last night’s dishes away and making coffee, and our upstairs neighbor just left for the day so the footsteps upstairs have stopped. It’s a quiet, warm morning with lovely weather but I feel like we’ve earned it.
  • Watching: We finished watching Case Histories this past week. We loved all the Edinburgh scenery and sites we recognized as we watched. We began watching Season 7 of Endeavour last night – it’s always well done. The Olympic banquet finale on Great British Menu was great, although lots of things kept going wrong. The chefs were still able to overcome it all and get out their dishes. I feel like the current season has started off sort of meh compared to the two past seasons so hopefully things will pick up as it goes along. In this season the chefs need to create dishes with a comedy or “fun” theme, but it’s just not as interesting for me as the past seasons’ requirements.
  • Happy I accomplished: On the day of Brett’s surgery, it took a wild bit of scheduling to fit everything in, and having to operate on a limited amount of sleep didn’t help, but everything got done and turned out the way it was supposed to. Otherwise we’ve had a very quiet week at home as Brett recovers. I’ve semi-successfully weaned myself off of Twitter (I’m only reading it for a few minutes at night) and am enjoying having more time for other things.
  • Looking forward to next week: I’m looking forward to Brett feeling good enough to walk our regular route with me up the park again – I’ve missed my walking companion. We’ve don’t have anything on the calendar for this coming week, but if we get a nice day we want to go to Barking Sands for a picnic and walk there.
Proof of life
  • Thinking of good things that happened: Besides Brett’s surgery going well, and getting my second dose of the vaccine – both very, very good things – our neighbor brought over a large, beautiful bouquet of flowers from their yard for Brett. She works at the hospital and met us going into the surgery entrance the other morning. Bryn Mawr announced all students and staff will be receiving the vaccine on April 19 and we’re hoping it won’t be too long before WenYu and Meiling will get theirs as well. My new passport arrived in the mail so I’m officially ready to travel the world again for the next 10 years! Both Brett and I are saving our old passports this time for sentimental reasons.
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We had some milk going sour so I made a double batch of pancakes to use it up and froze them for later. The weather was sketchy enough on Wednesday afternoon that we decided to skip the farmers’ market and instead picked up a few items at Big Save and spent less than $5.00. Other than that and picking up a prescription for Brett we had a no-spend week. $3.81 went into the change/$1 bill bag, and I earned 2,206 Swagbucks this past week. The leftovers are once again manageable and being eaten quickly, and nothing needed to be thrown away this week.
  • Grateful for: We are very thankful for the good outcome from Brett’s surgery, and that his recovery this past week has gone well. He has felt tired most of the week, which was expected, but he’s almost back to normal and ready to get on with things. Both of us are also grateful for our COVID vaccinations, and to all those who made it possible.
  • Bonus question: Would you rather be busier or have less to do than you do now? This requires a very subjective answer because what many would consider being busy others could see as not having much or enough to do at all. Some might look at my current life and find it boring, or think that I don’t do much of anything, but my days are full for me, with projects always being started, worked on, or completed. After years of having a daily schedule loaded with activities and responsibilities from work and the girls’ schedules, and always having to fit in the things I wanted or needed to do where and when I could, I love being able to fill (or not fill) my days when and as I wish. There are several things I work to accomplish every day and I keep weekly activity cards to make sure those things get done (reading, writing, exercise, and so forth) but I love the ability to do them at my own pace these days rather than trying to arrange them around what everyone else is doing. Anyway, I guess the answer to this is I like being busy but in a relaxed way, and prefer the happy medium of having plenty of things to do on my own schedule.

Although we stayed close to home this week, we did get out in the neighborhood to look at some of the hibiscus flowers that are blooming around us. The yellow ones in the lower right are absolutely huge, each about the size of a large dessert plate! I keep meaning to ask our neighbor if we can come over and take a peek at their yard, where they grow the beautiful flowers that are in Brett’s bouquet. The garden is large enough to be able to provide flowers for hotels in the area, so I can only imagine how glorious it looks (the husband is retired and growing flowers and other tropical plants is his hobby). More and more plants are blooming in our yard as well, the orange tree is still blossoming, and the guava tree is beginning to set fruit – we’re hoping for as good a harvest as we had last year. We can almost no longer see the little house behind us because the trees have grown so much. It turns out they’re durian trees and there are now two giant fruits hanging in among the branches and leaves.

The large brown football-shaped fruit hanging in the tree are durians. I’m happy not to be around whenever one of those is opened!

That’s a wrap to a quiet but successful week where everything happened as it should. Wishing all a good week coming up, filled with good things happening, good food, good books, and enough to keep you all busy without wearing you out.

Imagining the Next Downsize

Only some of these things will be kept the next time around.

The other day I took two houseplants that weren’t doing so well and set them out on our front porch (where they almost instantly revived). With the plants gone, I was able to move a few things around in our living room which somehow managed to give it a fresher, more uncluttered and open look. I was surprised that the removal of only two items and a few other small changes facilitated such a big change in how the otherwise small room feels. Less had created more.

Brett and I are already starting to think about what we’ll ship back to the U.S. when we leave Kaua’i in a couple of years, and what we can let go of this time. Last time we sent back around 1,500 pounds for storage; we hoping for around 500 pounds this time. We already know we’ll be able to let go of more now, a reminder that downsizing and decluttering remain a process, not a one-time-and-you’re-done task. We know that was unbearable to let go of before can become bearable over time, and maybe even desired, and that we have a very different sense these days of what we want to live with than we did when we set off back in 2018.

While I think I already do a good job of not accumulating things, I came across an article the other day for decluttering or downsizing a room that I wish I had thought of or known about earlier, an idea which I plan to use mentally over the next couple of years as the actual process would be impossible given our current space. The exercise requires removing absolutely everything out of a room you want to declutter, from furniture to pictures to tchotchkes. Everything. When the room is completely cleared out, it’s deep cleaned it from top to bottom (and repainted if needed or desired).

The room should then sit empty for at least three days, but longer if possible while careful thought is given to the desired result for the room. After that, items should be slowly brought back into the room, maybe over a period of days, until the imagined result is reached. After that, everything else can go. The happy result should be a decluttered room with less needed than one initially imagined.

While we’re unable to do the empty room thing now, Brett and I will instead imagine a future empty space, and think carefully about how we’d like our room(s) to look. Our days on the road taught us that we prefer small, uncluttered spaces with a few thoughtful touches. What we’ll be asking ourselves going forward what pieces that we have now will be useful? What pieces will bring us joy?

We know that some things aren’t going to make the cut this next time, but it’s going to take time for us to figure it all out. For now we’ll appreciate, enjoy, and use what we have, but always with that empty room in the back of our minds.

Facing Reality

At the beginning of the year, Brett and I started looking into home-buying options on Kaua’i. We had no plans to buy right away, but wanted to be better educated about what’s available and be ready to buy if something suitable came along. We had already decided that a condo would be our best option as houses here are unaffordable: the current median home price on Kaua’i is $985K 😱! We also aren’t interested in all the maintenance, yard work, etc. that comes with owning a home here. A couple of weeks ago there were only four single family-homes on the island in our price range but two were already contingent, all were very small, one needed a lot of work, and three were in a location that doesn’t work for us. There were also issues here with the few available condos in our price range as well (fee simple versus leasehold, for example). We’re definitely not keen on living in a building with tourists coming and going most of the time, but purely residential condos are few and far between and expensive. A condo we considered purchasing five years ago now costs $100K+ more than it did then. The massive elephant in the room with any condo purchase here is always the HOA fee. While there are some that are less, the usual HOA fee on Kaua’i is over $800/month and climbs rapidly from there, and can often double any mortgage payment.

While our current income is more than adequate to allow us to do many things, live comfortably, and save, if Brett dies before me I will lose close to 2/3 of that amount – his military retirement will go away (although I will retain health insurance and all other benefits) as will my Social Security (I would receive his higher amount instead). Unless there’s a miracle, my student loans will continue and I will be paying those until I am 83 years old. A big factor for us in any home purchase therefore is keeping our mortgage payment (including any HOA fees) at an affordable level so I will be OK financially if something should happen to Brett. 

Both Brett and I are veterans and qualify for a VA loan, with no money required for a downpayment, and no mortgage insurance required. However, we can see that our best bet going forward will be to start with as large a down payment as possible to reduce the monthly payment. So, after much thought and number crunching we gave ourselves a deadline of early 2023 and decided that between now and then we would save, save, save as much as possible toward a down payment. We would continue to save for travel, but adjust those plans to fit a smaller amount of savings and tighter budget.

We also know that housing prices on Kaua’i are going to continue to rise – it’s frightening how much they’ve gone up since we left two years ago – and HOA fees are only going to go up as well. What if even with a downpayment we can’t meet our price goal? Can we accept having to rent versus owning with those costs going up as well? We love living here for many reasons, but should we honestly reconsider moving back to the mainland? And if so, where would that be? 

The discussions over this are ongoing. For the past few weeks the pros and cons of staying in Hawaii or possibly moving back to the mainland have dominated our conversations, and there has been no good answers. Our three daughters all live back east now and will be staying there. Meiling is currently in NYC, but wants to eventually move to Boston, to be closer to WenYu who lives in the area. YaYu currently attends college in eastern Pennsylvania, and has said she is planning to stay back east as well if possible (it will depend on where she goes to grad school). When we spoke with Meiling and WenYu last week they both said they would be thrilled if we lived closer to them. They know we are are happy here and love living on Kaua’i, but at the same time now admit that they wish we were closer to them, especially as we age and as they move closer to raising their own families. We miss them terribly – celebrating Christmas from a distance really drove that home – and wish we could get together with our girls more often. We recently looked at pictures of houses back east though, most currently covered with snow, and Brett and I both said, “I don’t think we can do this . . . ” (or want to).

What we know now is only that we will have to make a decision one way or the other one of these days. In the meantime we are going to stick with our deadline of early 2023, and continue to save as much as possible and then see where that takes us in the real world. 

Home Cooking: Goat Cheese, Artichoke, and Smoked Ham Strata

photo credit: Better Homes & Garden

Whenever I want to serve a special breakfast/brunch dish that can be enjoyed at any time during the morning, either cold or reheated, a strata fits the bill perfectly. A strata is convenient because it can be prepared the night before and be refrigerated overnight, so that all that has to be done in the morning is heat the oven and pop the pan in to bake. Because a strata is basically a savory bread pudding, the variations are endless, and they’re a great way to use up leftover bread, meats, vegetables, or those last bits of cheese that are hanging around, and they’re perfect for main dishes other times of the day as well.

This recipe, from Cooking Light magazine, is a long-time family favorite of ours. It blends tangy goat cheese into the milk and egg mixture, and the middle is filled with diced ham, artichoke hearts and parmesan cheese. It works perfectly as a main dish any time of day.

Although you don’t have to use lower fat ingredients, I typically keep it lean by using egg substitute and skim milk, and making sure all the fat is trimmed from the ham. And, even though it only calls for a small amount, I also usually skip the nutmeg as it’s a flavor I don’t care for in savory dish (there’s a long story there). I’m not exactly sure about a substitute for the fontina cheese as I always just bought a piece when I make this, but a mild cheese like Jarlsberg would work, I think. Finally, the original recipe asks for sourdough bread, but French bread works just as well. Day-old or leftover bread works better than fresh no matter what bread is chosen.

GOAT CHEESE, ARTICHOKE AND SMOKED HAM STRATA

  • 3 1/4 cups low-fat or skim milk, divided
  • 1 8-oz. carton egg substitute or 4 large eggs
  • 1 4-oz. package goat cheese
  • 3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp fresh thyme, or 1/4 tsp dried
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 10 slices sourdough bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Cooking spray
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 ounces coarsely-chopped smoked ham
  • 2 14-oz. cans of artichoke hearts, well-drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese

In either a food processor or blender, combine 1 cup milk, egg substitute or eggs and goat cheese and process until smooth. Add the goat cheese mixture to the remaining 2 1/4 cups milk in a large bowl, then add pepper, thyme, nutmeg and garlic and whisk to combine. Add the bread cubes and stir gently to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Place half of the bread mixture (the cheese/mil mixture will not be completely soaked in) in a 9″ x 13″ pan coated with cooking spray. Arrange the chopped ham, artichoke hearts and Parmesan cheese over the bread mixture, then cover with the remaining bread mixture. Pour any leftover cheese/milk mixture evenly around the pan. Sprinkle the top with the fontina cheese.

The strata can either be baked (uncovered) at this time, or put into the refrigerator to sit overnight for baking in the morning. Bake at 350° for 40 minutes or until the edges are bubbly. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before serving. Makes 8 servings.

So Very Thankful

In spite of everything 2020 has thrown at us, Brett and I have much to be thankful for this year. Plans and dreams were thrown to the wind back in March when the pandemic began to rear its ugly head, both while we were in Japan and in the U.S., but in spite of some roadblocks that have popped up now and again we’ve had a very good year overall.

Gratitude for all that we have is what has kept me sane this year, and I have much to be thankful for:

  • Health: I am extremely grateful for our continued good health, the health of our children and their significant others, and our grandchildren. Also, who knew at the beginning of the year that this would be the one where Brett and I finally got our act together as far as diet and exercise? We’ve at last figured out a way exercising that we enjoy doing and that works for us, and we’re getting in shape and losing weight. We’ve also set goals that make sure we maintain and improve on what we’re doing now.
  • Family: We are also truly blessed that all of our family is thriving, and in spite of not being able to get together this year following our departure from Japan, we’ve all done more than a good job of staying in touch and checking up on each other. We’re feeling hopeful and optimistic that we’ll be able to put together a reunion next year. As always, I’m grateful for the love, support, friendship, and companionship of my husband, Brett. I got lucky with this one.
  • Kaua’i: Our sudden return to Kaua’i last March was frankly a shock to our system, but now we couldn’t be more happy that we decided to come back, and are beyond thankful that our kids encouraged us to return and settle here again. This time we seem to be better at appreciating what we have here, and are more appreciative of our quiet lifestyle. While not free from the virus, Kaua’i continues to be an extremely safe place to be during the pandemic, and we are grateful for the commitment of those who live here and now visitors about wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and practicing other safe behaviors. While we enjoyed the months we had this year without visitors and traffic, we’re genuinely glad to see businesses picking up again and people going back to work, and are thankful that Hawaii’s testing protocol and quarantine seem to be keeping the virus at bay.
  • Many blessings: Both Brett and I have received many blessings this year, from spending time with friends here on the island to a long stay near our family in Japan at the beginning of the year to finding a great place to live when we unexpectedly returned to Kaua’i (and the good fortune of being able to buy back our old car). We’re blessed to have a solid, dependable income, always enough to eat, and to be able to live in such a beautiful part of our country. 
  • My readers: I have the best readers in the world, and I am always thankful for all who continue to visit the blog and read whatever I have to say. I’m grateful as well for the advice, support, and kind comments I receive. I am lucky beyond measure to have met several readers in real life and become friends with them, and hope I am able to meet many more in the years ahead.

Wishing all my readers, their friends and family, a very happy Thanksgiving. It’s been a wild ride this year, but worth remembering that “It’s not happy people who are grateful, it’s thankful people who are happy.” 

Home Cooking: Addictive Pumpkin Burritos

photo credit: allrecipes (I think someone went a little nuts with the cilantro)

Several years ago a friend sent me this recipe for burritos and when the girls were young they quickly became a favorite and a nice change from more “traditional” burritos. They’re not only delicious and easy to make and the ingredients don’t cost a lot. They’re also quite nutritious, and surprisingly low fat (and can be vegan with the cheese left out). They can also be wrapped individually and frozen to reheat later for snacks or a quick meal.

The original recipe called for cooked and mashed sweet potato, but I substituted pumpkin and it worked perfectly. With pumpkin, add the water to the bean mixture gradually though as canned pumpkin tends to be a bit “wetter” than  baked sweet potato and the bean mixture doesn’t need to quite so wet (which risks making the burritos soggy). Canned refried beans can be substituted for the kidney beans in the recipe to save on time, although I personally never thought it took all that much time to mash the kidney beans. There’s no reason either why other types of beans, such as black beans or pintos, couldn’t be substituted if you prefer them, and pureed butternut squash or a large can of sweet potatoes (follow the same advice about adding the water) can also be substituted. The spices might seem excessive to some, but I happen to think they’re just enough (and we have also added salsa as well). The friend who sent me the recipe halved the chili powder, cumin, mustard and cayenne pepper and said they still tasted great.

If you do end up with some leftover bean mixture it can be added later to scrambled eggs for a breakfast burrito!

ADDICTIVE PUMPKIN BURRITOS

  • 3 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 cups canned kidney beans, drained
  • 2 cups water or less, as needed
  • 3 TBSP chili powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 4 tsp prepared mustard
  • pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 3 TBSP soy sauce
  • 4 cups cooked and mashed pumpkin puree, sweet potato, or butternut squash
  • 12 10-inch flour tortillas, warmed
  • 8 oz. shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or Pepper Jack if you’d like a little more spice)

Preheat oven to 350°. Heat oil in a medium skillet, and saute onions and garlic until soft. Add beans and mash well. Gradually stir in water, and heat until thick and warm. Remove from heat and stir in chili powder, cumin, mustard, cayenne pepper (if using) and soy sauce. Divide bean mixture and pumpkin puree evenly between the warm tortillas; place next to the lower edge and top with some cheese. Fold the edge over tightly, then fold up the sides and fold over again to close. Bake for 12 minutes in the oven and serve warm. Chopped green onion and sour cream go well with these burritos.

You can freeze these burritos for later use. Don’t bake them, but wrap each one individually in foil, then place in a bag and freeze. Heat by taking off the foil and microwaving for two and a half minutes, or defrost and bake according to directions.

Home Cooking: Pumpkin Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting

(photo credit: chocolatewithgrace.com)

Fall has arrived (well, everywhere but here) along with pumpkin season. If I remember correctly, Trader Joe’s and lots of other places probably have a pumpkin version of just about everything they sell (pumpkin cream cheese? pumpkin coffee?) on their shelves right now, both sweet and savory, or at least they did a few years ago. My favorite pumpkin item from Trader Joe’s was the pumpkin spice toaster pastries, which were a fun breakfast treat. 

We are still big fans of pumpkin (although we gave the pumpkin cream cheese a pass and I may be the only one who doesn’t like pumpkin spice lattes). I have been known to stock up on organic canned pumpkin in the fall (when prices are low) so that I have it available year round, and back when we had a garden we grew our own pumpkins and then baked them and froze the puree. We love pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin coffee cake, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin nut bread and roasted pumpkin, but I think our whole family would agree that these pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting are at the top of our list of ways to enjoy this iconic fall squash.

This pumpkin bar recipe comes from a restaurant Brett and I used to regularly dine at, especially for special occasions: Ron Paul’s in NE Portland. The restaurant closed many years ago, long before we left Portland, but while it was open the wonderful Mr. Paul put out a regular newsletter which included this recipe. They’ve been a favorite since the first time I made them.

The bars are rich and moist, and the frosting adds just the right amount of sweetness without being overpowering. Mini chocolate chips can be substituted for the nuts if you want to take it to the next level, but we prefer pecans (or walnuts).

PUMPKIN BARS WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

For the bars:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 2/3 cups sugar
  • 2 cups pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (or mini chocolate chips)

For the frosting:

  • 3 oz. softened cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup softened butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a large bowl, blend together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, then add sugar, vegetable oil, and pumpkin stirring until well mixed. Add pecans (or walnuts or chips). Pour into a well-greased 10″ x 15″ x 1″ (jelly roll) pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly golden and set. Cool and frost.

To make the frosting: Beat cream cheese and butter together until fluffy; add powdered sugar and vanilla and beat on high speed until smooth. Frost when bars are completely cooled. Makes 32 bars.

The Walk to Our Son’s House

Our son’s home is the next stop from our subway station but requires about a mile’s walk once we leave that station. I have yet to be bored with the walk even those Brett and I have made it more times than we can count. The walk always offers a slice of “real” Japan and “real” Tokyo, and we continue to discover new things along the way every time we make the journey.

(The pictures below were taken on two different days, which is why the sky is blue in some and not in others.)

We pass a 24-hour underground McDonald’s on the way out of Komazawa-Daigaku station. We’ve never gone in.

Once out of the subway station we begin a long walk alongside a busy major street (cars drive on the left in Japan); up above is an expressway. The stacking is common throughout the city as it saves room in crowded Tokyo. In fact, just a little farther down the road, closer to where we’re living, we just discovered there are actually TWO expressways stacked on top of the road, one on top of the other. Some of the bare trees on the side of the street are ginkos, but I’m not sure what these are. Yes, it’s much more attractive when they’re leafed out.

This is our view down the sidewalk as we get started. We walk on the left side going to our son’s, on the right coming back, often single file because of the number of people using the space. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants along the way, just about everything you could imagine, with offices and apartments above (an apartment building will have balconies; an office building won’t).

We pass one gas station not too long after we get started. If you’re a cardholder, regular gas costs ¥144/liter ($5/gallon). If you don’t have a card, it’s ¥146/liter.

There are many tempting restaurants on the road, like this traditional ramen shop with its glowing lantern.

Our favorite though is this little okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) restaurant, run by a woman and her son. It’s very cozy and old-school, and the food is very good!

Eventually, we turn a corner and head for the Komazawa Olympic Park. Right after the turn is this traditional sweet shop, with a noren (shop curtain) over the door. Strawberry sweets are big now, but I want to stop in one of these days for some sakura mochi (mochi folded over a sweet bean filling and then wrapped with a pickled cherry leaf). It’s my favorite, and only available for a few months every year, around cherry blossom season.

Mitsubishi corporation employees can live in one of these subsidized apartments. They range in size from two rooms to some rather large apartments with terraces, assigned I assume, according to one’s position in the company. This complex contains three other equally large buildings.

A little further along, we walk past the entrance to Komazawa-Daigaku (Komazawa University). The apartment building in back is new since last year – and they built a separate little house on top!

We eventually reach Komazawa Olympic Park, where we turn left and pass by a pretty vegan restaurant called Mr. Farmer. We’ve checked out the menu but it’s expensive and nothing on the menu really appeals to us.

We turn right at the large skateboard park. 

Just past the skateboard park is the new baseball stadium, which was under construction all last year. Those big, bare trees will be loaded with cherry blossoms in April!

Some of the seating in the new stadium. We thought it might be have been built for the upcoming Olympics, but it’s used by local college and high teams, for games and tournaments. Our son said it’s incredibly noisy when a game’s going on. Although the sports venues at Komazawa Olympic Park were built for Olympic sports and crowds, there is a lack of transportation infrastructure in the area that makes holding such events there impossible.

Just across the road from the stadium is a small bird sanctuary that we walk past, although we’ve come to call it the “cat cafeteria” because there are usually three to four cats waiting inside the fence. We’ve even seen people leave out food for the cats. We have yet to see a bird there.

A couple of turns later and we’re at our son’s home! It’s a big house for Japan and sits among several other big houses along a narrow road. It has a large, bright open plan living/dining/kitchen upstairs, five bedrooms (including a traditional tatami room) on three levels (two are used for offices), two toilet rooms, a large bath, two balconies, one in the front and one in the back, and lots of storage. It doesn’t have any yard but there is a small garden area on the right.

We usually don’t walk back through the park when we walk back to the station at night, but instead walk up the street and turn right back onto the street we walked on to get to the park. It saves us a few steps doing it that way, but during the day we prefer the scenery and activity in the park.