Capturing the Heart of Texas for Imogen

My breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreakingly headstrong daughter, Imogen, was turning 4. Her birthday week was upon us (“I can’t believe I’m four today!” she began saying daily a week before the actual date.) We invited a dozen or so of her pals, their siblings and families for the party — which meant somewhere between 40 and 50 guests, large and small.

Imogen and Pepito

Imogen and Pepito

Many people, when they do parties, plan them from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — or, if they don’t want to serve lunch, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Many of these parties take place at parks, indoor trampoline venues, laser tag facilities and the like.

We like to plan our parties for 4-ish, cook a bunch of food, serve drinks and make it a proper party. In lieu of trampolines or laser guns or out-of-work actresses dressed as Disney characters, we simply set the kids loose on our property, where they cut graceful arcs through the trees on rope swings, chase one another, pet pigs and chickens, invent their own imagination games and generally enjoy themselves old school style.

For events such as these, I will make pizzas or hot dogs and watermelon for the children — in this case, 20 or so of them. For adults, something a little more involved.

Marrow with house bread

Marrow with house bread

This particular day, I kicked things off for the Bigs with a rather long platter of roasted bone marrow, served with some crusty homemade boule, the dough of which had been fermenting in the warm kitchen for day or so. For those guests less familiar with bone as food, I’m sure it was a curious sight. (And how often is it served at a children’s party!?? This may have been a first outside of Portland). The queue that soon formed in front of the bones confirmed that it was not an ill-advised move. (“I’m still dreaming of that marrow,” friend Gigi emailed me several days after the event.)

For the main course, it would be more of livestock that won the West — a Texas-style brisket long smoked and served with juices from the meat and plain white bread to sop up with. (Even the gluten-free in our midst could be spotted covertly sopping.) A spicy, pickly cole slaw provided textural balance and a nice kick.

Nymphs in the trees

Pixies in the trees

On Imogen’s second birthday, I made an owl cake for the girl who loved owls. Her third birthday, she requested a pink kitty cake, so a pink (Hello) kitty she got. This year, she wanted an Elsa cake — the tormented heroine from Disney’s “Frozen.” With a precedence already set by a rather extravagant Elsa cake from Whole Foods served at her friend, Phoebe’s birthday a few months before, I considered my options. Not possessing the particular culinary skills necessary for turning heated sugar into an ice castle, I decided on Olaf, the snowman from “Frozen,” instead.

We were fortunate to be visited, after all, by the character Elsa from the film — Imogen’s godfather, Ernie, in Elsa wig and cape (which I’m not sure quite cut the mustard, the birthday girl looked more troubled than pleased). Attempting to save face, Ernie insisted he was actually Salieri from the movie, “Amadeus,” and not Elsa.

Ernie as Elsa

Ernie dazzles as Elsa

It was nearly nine o’clock, the sun a few days beyond the solstice settling into the saddle of mountains to our west. The last kids still awake watched a movie in back, Imogen sleepy soundly from a day full of birthday at the foot of the bed. A few of us grown ups spread out on the deck, draining the last of the wine, watching bats carve erratic arcs in the fading twilight, digesting a Texas-size meal and toasting the Texas-size personality of the little birthday princess who inspired it.

Vive le France!

“I need to eat more French food,” my wife, who has lived in both the Alps and Paris, announced the other day.

As it so happened, the day after she made this proclamation was Bastille Day. And always good for an occasion to build a theme meal around, I pulled out what is and will always be the best French cookbook of all — Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry.”

The master at work

The master at work

I don’t use cookbooks so much for recipes as for inspiration. I had picked up three plump soft shell crabs a few days before, and wanted to see if any of Keller’s preparations caught my eye. Sure enough, there was a Chesapeake Bay Soft Shell Crab “Sandwich” — the quotation marks being Keller’s and indicating that the recipe was a playful riff on something you might be familiar with. More

Summer Gravlax for Argentina

So your friends, the Murphys, down the street, who lived in Argentina for awhile and fancy themselves Argentines, are having a party for the World Cup Final. They are making a traditional asado for the afternoon meal, and you want to bring a nice complementary appetizer. What do you settle on? Gravlax, of course.

Sockeye salmon curing

Sockeye salmon curing

While the closest thing to a Scandinavian country in the World Cup would be, I guess, the Netherlands, in today’s globally connected world of culinary mash-ups, there’s no need to be overly legalistic. More

My Best Idea

I remember watching a Ken Burns documentary series a few years back about the National Park system. It was called, “America’s Best Idea.”

I was thinking about this on a particularly hot Southern California summer afternoon, the desert winds blowing through the canyon and out to sea. It was stifling, I was thirsty… and then it came to me: My best idea!

Watermelon Aguarita

Watermelon Aguarita

It began with a half-eaten watermelon sitting on the kitchen counter. I was reminded of a post about watermelon agua fresca on my friend’s Jessica’s blog, Attempts in Domesticity. I pulled up her website, glanced at the instructions, and made myself a nice cold pinkish glass of watermelon agua fresca, which was just as refreshing as the post had suggested. More

Beautiful Simplicity

At times, I can be an elaborate cook — crafting complicated objets d’art composed of long simmered reductions, leaves blanched to ultimate greenness or fried to lacy crispness, powders of brilliant red or yellow, flowers and tiny herbs.

But at other times, I am reminded that nature — God, if you prefer — is the better artist.

It was Sunday morning, I was home alone sipping some Kauai coffee, listening to Nick Cave and reading the paper. And I got a little hungry.

Sunday breakfast

Sunday breakfast

I’m not really much of a breakfast person. In my roguish youth, I’d skip the requisite greasy diner hangover breakfasts my friends would set out for on the weekends, and the languid Sunday brunches of the early career years held equally little appeal. These days, apart from the occasional extravagant Mexican or Japanese breakfast, I typically grab a handful of cashews or maybe a small bowl of muesli and blueberries. More

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