Category Archives: Culinary Travels

My travels to restaurants, bakeries, and foodie havens near and far

Farmer’s Market Chronicles – Again At Last

It is difficult to put into words why the farmer’s market makes me so absurdly happy. I arrive on my lunch hour feeling like this

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buy some of this

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Break it. Break another little piece of my heart now baby. Go on, break it. Break another little piece of my heart I know you will.

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sit on a bench as waves drift by

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and by

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and by

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under blanketed sky

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Filed under Culinary Travels, Obsessed with Produce

Thanksgiving Improv

This post may seem a bit after the fact seeing as Thanksgiving is over. In my defense, it involves leftovers, super quick roasted nuts perfect for any occasion, and an epiphany: Jazz and Thanksgiving are soul mates.

Jazz by nature is so fluid it resists definition, but I tried anyway. Jazz could be defined as two conflicting cultures finding beauty in each other’s musical traditions, an embrace that results in music new, surprising, and glorious.

Thanksgiving could be defined as two conflicting cultures brought together by their mutual celebration of the harvest bounty (so the story goes).

Solidly rooted North American traditions, both are the result of two cultures in direct competition finding a common ground through art. Through mingling, new culinary and musical legacies were born.

I’m not sure exactly why jazz came into play. I wanted to write about Thanksgiving, but have been singing mostly blues notes as of late. There is so much to be thankful for, but instead of the usual lilting melody, this restless body is composing a cacophony that doesn’t match the love in my life.

Maybe I need to reinterpret my time signature. Just because it is dark when I wake, and dark when I leave work doesn’t mean there is less leisure time. Dark spaces feel smaller, but that’s what flash lights and desk lamps are for.

There is one thing that usually makes me feel better. In the jazz lexicon it would be called improvisation through syncopation; being open to new melodies (aka a dish) by using an unexpected deviation (combining ingredients not usually combined).

I set out on a culinary mission last weekend with that very thought in mind. Winter squash and nuts were the riff (repeated refrain). My plan was to make Maple Chipotle Nuts, and my very first homemade pumpkin pie. I began by making the nuts, and roasting and pureeing a sugar pumpkin. As I set out to make a pie the next day, it seemed only natural to make a Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie. The real surprise was my latest creation, an Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Nuts is a recipe I adapted from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op biweekly ads. I first made them as part of a clean-out-the-freezer project, and have since made them three times in the last week and a half. They are sweet, a little spicy, and seriously addicting.

Maple Chipotle Nuts

1 pound unsalted raw nuts (any mix of pecans, green pumpkin seeds aka pepitas, almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
1 cup maple syrup
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1)   Heat oven to 325. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

2)   Mix maple syrup and brown sugar in a small microwave safe bowl. Heat in microwave till sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Stir in chipotle powder, salt, and pepper.

3)   Combine nuts and maple syrup mixture. Stir till evenly coated. Spread nuts on lined baking sheet.

4)   Bake 6-7 minutes. Stir, then bake another 6-7 minutes till bubbly. Put nuts in a heat safe bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to break them up.

5)   There’s plenty to snack on, sprinkle on a salad with bleu cheese or feta, and make Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie

Even though it was my first time making a pumpkin pie, that didn’t stop me from tweaking the recipe. (Never does!) I got a small sugar pumpkin in my CSA box a couple of weeks ago, and finally got around to doing something with it. My 8 year old loves pumpkin pie, and begged me to make one. I warned her I was going to put nuts on top, but she could take them off. She allowed me to proceed.

You can use any piecrust you like. I used the “No Fear Pie Crust” from Cook’s Country. (This is a subscription website, but this particular recipe is free! Although it might be just be free during the holidays.) I highly recommend it. I took the recipe title for granted, and let my three year old help me make it with great results. Also, it stayed nice and crisp even though it took us a few days to finish the pie.

The filling I used is another free one from Cook’s Country, their “Pumpkin-Praline Pie.” You can click on the link or just follow my simplified instructions:

In a medium saucepan, combine:

15 oz plain pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt

1)   Once all the filling ingredients are in the pan, turn heat to medium high. Stirring frequently, heat till bubbling and thickened, about 4 minutes.

2)   Remove from heat and whisk in 1 cup evaporated milk, 3 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

To finish the pie:

1)   Pour filling into warm piecrust. (The filling is actually a little too much for a 9” pan. Save the leftovers! I’ve got a great use for it down the screen.)

2)   Bake at 350 till the filling puffs up, and barely jiggles at the center, about 35 minutes.

3)   Top with Maple Chipotle Nuts, then bake another 10 minutes or so until toasty, and you just can’t handle the aroma-torture any longer.

4)   Let cool on a wire rack till set, 2 hours or so.

Next time I make this pie, I plan to kick up the spice by putting a little chipotle powder into the filling.

Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie

So, you may be wondering where the acorn squash comes in. I’ve had this beautiful Carnival acorn squash on my table as a fall decoration for a few weeks. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

But, when I made the piecrust, I realized I didn’t have any pie weights (because they would get used less often than my children ask for a bath). So, I improvised. I used a foil-lined pie tin with half an acorn squash to weigh down the crust and roast it at the same time. I put the other half face down in another pie pan, and essentially killed two birds with one stone.

But wait, there’s more! Once the acorn squash starts to caramelize, and is tender enough for a fork to pierce easily, flip it over and pour the rest of the pumpkin pie filling in the center. Bake another 10-20 minutes until the filling is set. This would be great in a butternut, or any other squash you like to prepare on the sweeter side.

Back to the Blues:

Maybe I need to take this syncopation thing more seriously. One way of making an unexpected deviation in music is with a rest where a stress is expected. Slowing my tempo makes sense, but seems impossible. Family life means trying to synchronize the rhythms of four people into one composed day, every day. Of course I can stop doing the extras I love (like writing, baking, little things that help me maintain sanity), but I can’t not participate in my family’s song. How do you do it all, or stop trying to do it all?

In jazz, some songs use a call-response format. The lead singer will sing an improvised line or two, and the chorus responds with a refrain. As the lead singer in this scenario calling to you, the chorus, what do you do when you find yourself singing the blues?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Culinary Travels, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Techniques

Farmer’s Market Chronicles – Impressionist Fall

I’ve been feeling a bit bled and blurred as of late.

Today was the first day of fall, with a high of 97 degrees. Summer is going to have to drag me out with it, kicking and screaming. I bought six pounds of tomatoes at the farmer’s market. Fresh pasta/pizza sauce will soon be in my freezer at the ready for a cold day basil pick-me-up.

On the way to the market, I took a photo of one of my favorite trees. See how it’s almost on its tippy toes leaning back to catch a few rays? That’s me in two months.

I deliberately ignored the pumpkins. Peaches still rule, though not for much longer.

I sat in the thinning grass. Cesar Chavez ignored me.

A red balloon in the branches overhead caught my eye.

I thought of Monet.

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A Local Farm Tour

Every other Wednesday, it’s like Christmas at my house. We step outside to start our day, ready or not, and my three-year-old squeals every time, “Mommy! We got a vegetable box!!!!”

Regardless of schedule, the box must be carried inside and opened up immediately. She drags a chair over to the island, and we ooooh and awww over every beet, cabbage, and strawberry. We marvel at the colors, and weigh each piece of fruit in our hands.

We’ve been getting a CSA (community supported agriculture) box through Farm Fresh To You for almost two years now. This past Saturday, we were finally able to put a face with the name, that is, a field with the beautiful fruits and vegetables that grace our doorstep and table. We traveled about an hour northwest of Sacramento to Capay Organic, the farm and heart of Farm Fresh To You (FFTY), for their 35th Annual Farm Tour.

We began with a tractor tour of the farm. On the ride back we stopped to pick a few tomatoes. Afterwards, we ate our picnic lunch under a tree. If we had brought a knife, these tomatoes probably wouldn’t have made it home.

A chicken joined us as we were finishing our lunch. We gave him a watermelon rind, and he was quickly joined by a friend.

You know what they say about birds of a feather…

They were quite indignant we didn’t have any more lunch to spare.

After lunch we picked figs. I’ve picked many a stone fruit, but this was my first time picking figs. Of course I had to eat one straight from the tree. It was spectacular.

Just on the other side of the fig orchard there was live music…

and hula hooping and bubbles for the kids

Even with all the festivities the distribution center was in full swing. These gorgeous heirloom tomatoes were being readied to ship.

As we were leaving my husband asked our oldest daughter to pick him one more fig. She stepped in some nice clean organic mud that suctioned off both of her shoes. I fetched them and of course muddied my own shoes in the process. On our way to wash up, we ran into Freeman Barsotti, one of the farm’s owners. He was very friendly, listening to me ramble on about growing up on a farm and being in love with summer fruit. It was a beautiful day, organic mud and all.

On our drive back, my husband asks, “Is this local, driving an hour away to where our food is grown?”

It’s an interesting question. How do you define local? The distance you would drive to go grocery shopping? An hour drive? In today’s global economy, I’m happy if my produce is California grown. But what if you live a state not known for its agriculture? Maybe then grown in the USA would suffice? I’m sure everyone answers a little differently.

There is a plethora of good reasons to eat local. If we didn’t insist on having every fruit and vegetable available 365 days a year, there would be no need to import them from all over the world. Shelf stable wouldn’t be the selling factor. Our food would be in season, fresher, and healthier. Most importantly, it would taste better! People used to eat locally out of necessity. Now it takes conscientious effort.If you are interested, here are a few resources to get you started:

eatlocalchallenge.com They have a great rule of thumb for prioritizing food choices:

If not LOCALLY PRODUCED, then Organic.
If not ORGANIC, then Family farm.
If not FAMILY FARM, then Local business.
If not a LOCAL BUSINESS, then Fair Trade.

localharvest.org locates local organic food – everything from farmer’s markets to farms and CSAs.

pickyourown.org locates farms where you can pick your own produce

eatwild.com locates local grass fed meat, dairy, and eggs

Also, check out your local natural foods co-op if you have one. In addition to carrying tons of local wares, Sacramento’s Natural Foods Co-op is also a great resource for finding local farms and CSAs.

Besides having Christmas delivered to our doorstep year round, one of my favorite things about our CSA box is the community connection. Farm Fresh goes out of their way to not only bring good food to the table, but also to encourage its members to share with each other. Whether its recipes, tips, or the simple pleasure of eating, good food always tastes better in good company. Eating local is not the easiest road, but it’s worth it. Thank you Farm Fresh for making it that much simpler.

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Edible Boston

In Part I of my Boston series (The Rauch House), I began with thanks and a poem for my hosts. Part II was my tour of America’s Test Kitchen, the meat and potatoes. Now here we are, Part III, the last of my Boston series. Last only until my next trip out (hopefully much sooner than this last ten year gap). Here I offer you an edible tour of the city, finished with a new recipe chock full of New England.

Two years ago, my soon-to-be-8 year old made “Boston Cream Pie” with vanilla wafers, vanilla pudding, and chocolate frosting in her school’s summer program. Ever since, she’s been asking to go to Boston for the real thing. (She also asked to go to China when she found out that’s where her Disney princess toys were made.)

This trip marked many firsts for her. First: 1) plane ride, 2) subway ride, 3) trip to the East coast, and many more. Our first order of business when we landed at 5 p.m. EST? The Parker House hotel, home of the original Boston Cream Pie. We started with calamari as an appetizer (mostly to appear as if I don’t feed my child dessert for dinner). As picky as she is, she actually likes squid. Probably because it’s not green. Although I still haven’t talked her into trying crab or lobster, go figure.

Boston was love at first bite.

and second, and third…

The next day we went to the aquarium down by the harbor.

The highlight of the day was getting to touch stingrays and a shark!

Is it just me, or is there something wrong with eating seafood at an aquarium? I pondered this as I enjoyed my very first lobster roll (from a little hot dog stand called “Dogs N Claws” of all places) just outside of the aquarium. It was pretty spectacular, tons of meat, very fresh and simple.

That night for dinner we went to Tantric, an Indian restaurant in the theater district. They had some of the most unusual, amazing dishes. My photos don’t do it justice. The lighting was perfect for ambience, not so perfect for photography.

Freeze, a tiny ice cream shop way out on the green D line at the Waban stop, has the best ice cream I’ve ever had. They serve giant, old-fashioned scoops of ice cream. Picture perfect peppermint stick ice cream, heavenly blackberry frozen yogurt with dark chocolate chips…I’m telling you this because I couldn’t be bothered to take a picture before devouring it. Ice cream doesn’t make a good model anyway. You will just have to go and see for yourself.

The next day was the big tour of America’s Test Kitchen, which ended with a lovely lunch at Cutty’s. This deceptively simple sandwich shop is run by a former ATK test cook. Super fresh thinly cut Italian meats, paired with a carrot and olive salad that I must find a way to replicate at home, makes for quite the memorable sandwich.

Another fun discovery, at Cutty’s they were giving out free copies of “edibleBoston,” a magazine dedicated to “Celebrating the Abundance of Local Food.” What’s really neat is this magazine can be found in many other cities, including Sacramento! I will have to add “edibleSacramento” to my growing list of food-centric subscriptions.

As you may have noticed from previous rhapsodies, I have an affinity for farmer’s markets. I was thrilled to get to explore one near the Boston Common. I confess I didn’t have terribly high expectations since I’ve always heard produce outside California doesn’t compare. And while they didn’t have my favorite summer stone fruits, I was surprised with the variety and intensity of colors.

I tried my first gooseberries (sour!) and bought my first currants, mostly because I was so taken with their gorgeous color. I couldn’t wait, and began photographing them in my lap on the drive to our next stop.

Wilson Farm, a 127 year-old family farm in Lexington, MA, grows beautiful produce for sale in their little shop. They also supplement with a fair amount of produce from California, but I wouldn’t hold it against them. We bought some black mission figs, watermelon, and other fun things to play with for dinner later.

After swimming at Walden Pond, beautiful, beautiful Walden Pond,

Mikele and I got to play in the kitchen. Cooking with someone who truly enjoys the art of it all is such a pleasure. This phenomenal salad summed up our day, and our trip perfectly:

Summer Currants Salad
Serves: 4

Ingredients:
Baby mixed greens, a little arugula would be nice
3 black mission figs, sliced
¼ cup of extra sharp cheese, slivered
¼ cup fresh red currants
Small handful sliced baby heirloom tomatoes and snap peas (if you have them)

Dressing:
½ cup fresh currants
¼ cup mango nectar (or other tart & sweet juice)

2-3 Tablespoons mango nectar
2 Tablespoons orange Muscat vinegar (or rice vinegar if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby to find this yummy stuff)
2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 Tablespoons Kalamata olive oil (or your best extra virgin)
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked fennel seeds
Sea salt to taste
Black sesame seeds (optional)

Directions:

1)   Simmer ½ cup fresh currants and ¼ cup mango nectar on medium low until the currants start to break down, no more than 5 minutes if you start with a hot pan.
2)   Place a bowl under a fine mesh strainer (or tea ball if your kitchen is in chaos). Pour warmed currants and juice into the strainer. Mash the pulp around to extract as much of the juice as you can. Fingers work well for this.
3)   Add the rest of the dressing ingredients to the strained juices, saving the olive oil for last. Note-it’s much easier to crack fennel seeds if you drizzle a little water over them. This keeps them from hopping around while your knife does its job.
4)   Slowly whisk in olive oil until dressing resembles a gorgeous liquid watermelon. Season the dressing to taste. If it tastes dull, add a little lime juice. If the flavor is not quite there, add a little salt.
5)   Arrange the greens in a nice bowl with sliced figs, cheese, fresh currants, and any other random veggies you feel like adding.
6)   Dress the greens just prior to eating, preferably outside, before the mosquitoes begin to hum.

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Cuisines (Regional and International), Culinary Travels, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce

Behind the Scenes at America’s Test Kitchen

Last Thursday, as a result of my entry in ATK’s Boston Blogger Cookie Challenge, (See my post here, I was a finalist!) I was given the amazing opportunity to take a private tour of America’s Test Kitchen along with a few other very lucky bloggers. I’ve been a big fan of the Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen series since around 2001. My very sweet Sicilian mother-in-law (who has always appreciated how much I love to cook, but more importantly, eat-mangia!) bought me my first subscription to the “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine.

My only complaint with the Cook’s series is they are a little too caught up with the method. The warmth and art of cooking is often lost in their recipes. On the other hand, the intense focus on the method is what makes this line so accessible. They lift the veil, you get to see the wizard at work, and I’m a much better cook because of it.

I don’t know if they’d gotten wind of this complaint, or if they are just very clever, but ATK has just launched a new website that lifts the veil even further. If you’re the type that likes all the special features on DVDs, then “America’s Test Kitchen Feed” will whet your appetite. The best part of this website is the methodical test cooks get to let their hair down. Recipes like homemade bacon jam are proof positive! Create a login and password, and it’s totally free. I need to have a gathering as an excuse to make bacon jam to avoid the problem of wanting to eat it all at once: http://www.americastestkitchenfeed.com/recipes/homemade-bacon-jam/

The test kitchen resides in a 2,500 square foot converted camping equipment warehouse in Brookline, Massachusetts. It has been in the same location since the birth of “Cook’s Illustrated” in 1993. You can imagine how tight quarters are since two floors now house “Cook’s Illustrated,” PBS show “America’s Test Kitchen,” their newer magazine focused on regional American cooking, (everything from Hawaiian kalua pork to New England style clam chowder) “Cook’s Country” and “America’s Test Kitchen Radio,” not to mention their prolific website and cookbook publishing.

Apart from two weeks of filming the “Cook’s Country” TV series, absolutely everything is done in-house from filming, recording, and photography, to researching, developing, and testing food (and yes, if you were wondering, the staff is very well fed). Even their back alley gets its share of activity-all of their grilling recipes are tested back there (in parkas, mid-winter, since they work six months ahead of publication.)

The tour began with an unmarked, unassuming green door. I tried the buzzer, but nothing happened. Before I took another step, a friendly delivery driver asked where I was headed. “America’s Test Kitchen,” I said. (How many times do you get to say that?) I must have seemed safe, because he showed me the delivery entrance. Suddenly, there I was walking up the brick-lined stairs, which smelled surprisingly of stale cigarettes.

I then faced a second buzzer, but this one buzzed right back. I turned the knob, walked in, and there I was signing my name on the guest list! My fellow bloggers were standing nearby in an expectant circle. I joined them and seconds later Stephanie Yiu, the cheerful social media relations director, greeted us. She scored big points by remembering each of our blogs by name. And then, off we went!

The tour could easily have taken 5 minutes, but it was stretched and savored to about 45. Both floors are filled to max capacity. Tall racks of equipment line hallways and fill every nook and cranny. The open reception area begins and ends the circle of the kitchen.

A few steps to the right, and we were in the largest private collection of cookbooks in the country, over 4,000 cookbooks (drool)! What’s the point of all these recipe books made with real paper, you might ask? Surprisingly, not every recipe is on-line. (yet)

Cook’s extensive recipe development process begins with a shout-out, “5 recipe test!” A small stampede of test cooks (over 40 rigorously trained cooks are currently employed) head to the library and peruse until they get five like-minded recipes. The chosen five are then executed as written, followed by a critique of what went right, and what went wrong. And then, let the testing begin!

To the right of the library is their tiny photography studio, capable of capturing three highly edible (nothing faked here!) dishes at the same time, and a small pantry that holds every cutting board, picnic table surface, and place setting seen in their delectable photos.

just the cutting boards and picnic tables!

Straight ahead from the library is a small kitchen, with large, cheerful windows.

This is where much of the prep is done.

Mise en place – everything in its place

The sweet, earthy aroma of leek tarts wafting from the oven was a bit unfair. The tarts were destined to model in the studio before being devoured by the lucky staff.

To the left of the library is The Test Kitchen.

Lights, cameras, action! Sorry, just had to say it.

18 ovens are humming around the clock. Maintenance is no small task! Beef stew simmered away, this being July and all.

One of the most surprising things I learned on this tour was that, despite testing recipes umpteen times, commercial-sized equipment is not used (save for the walk-in refrigerator and freezer). Pots and pans, utensils and gadgets are all home cook-sized.

Now I see why their equipment reviews are so useful, particularly in this day and age of endless choices. As a working kitchen replicating the home environment, they have a vested interest in the quality of their equipment. To perform their reviews, they buy products off the shelf just like a consumer would. Rigorous tests are performed and graded on forms more complex than an SAT. They buy more of the test winners to use in their kitchen, which further demonstrate performance with real life wear and tear. (The best part is, it’s often not the most expensive model that wins the day. )

They had my pasta roller!

One of the many benefits of working at the Test Kitchen is the equipment lottery held each year. All staff members get equal chance at picking from a table brimming with leftover test kitchen gadgetry. (Sign me up for that!)

Two shoppers are employed full time just to do the grocery shopping. Over $500,000 a year is spent on groceries alone! This is partly because they shop like most consumers do rather than buying in bulk, and partly because they buy products available nationally, and are recommended in their extensive taste tests.

Upstairs is the editorial room where Chris Kimball leads very serious discussions about crepes and whether a home cook would take the time to make them. That is another thing I really appreciate about the test kitchen. They take the home cook very seriously. After taking a recipe to task and whipping it into shape, they send it out to real home cooks for further testing and review. The deciding factor is whether the home cook would make it again. If a recipe fails this test, it’s back to the drawing board. If it fails again, all that hard work goes down the drain. That’s how much we matter to them!

Chris Kimball's chair!

And with that, we walked downstairs into the reception area where we began.

that's me!

I love the feel of the Test Kitchen. It’s a great mix of traditional and modern. Stainless steel, up to the minute kitchen accoutrement, and large windows set off brick-lined walls and oak work tables that look like a freakishly long version of anyone’s dining room set. All in all, very homey.

Apparently Julia Collin-Davison walked through while we were on the tour, but I was oblivious (as usual). I was probably busy taking pictures of furniture.

In 1906, O. Henry published a collection of 25 short stories including one entitled, “The Green Door.” In this story, O. Henry uses the green door as a symbol for everyday adventures he is encouraging us to seek out. That is exactly how I would describe cooking, an everyday adventure. Thank you America’s Test Kitchen, for opening your door to me, and the wonderful world of cooking!

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The Rauch House

Last week, I was a very lucky girl. I was invited to go on a private tour of America’s Test Kitchen, (details coming soon!) and was thrilled to be able to accept the invitation and stay five glorious days with my favorite Bostonians, my husband’s aunt and uncle.

Boston, in all its historical glory, is also quite the destination for good food. It’s known for fresh seafood, and of course, Boston Cream Pie, (not that the locals ever eat it) but some lesser known treasures were discovered as well that I hope to share soon. There is so much I want to share from this trip in fact, I think it’s going to have to be a series. For this first installment, I want to begin by saying thank you to my hosts.

This poem is shared with much love and gratitude to Doug & Mikele. Their house is something special-because it is filled with them.

The Rauch House

these walls are good

they do not slow

true colors flow

cicadas bloom

and fingers fly
be it bows or strings

piano’d keys
or drums and hearts that sing

where ALL living
are cherished

and being a metaphor
never goes unnoticed

and let’s not forget
(how could you? you can’t)

the food!

honest to goodness
(whatever that means)

served with simple grace
and gratitude

a place where seven layered wine
and words BIG, small, and fine
are known to reach their sacred destinations

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