Duke’s Not the Only One to Take the A Train

You must take the “A” train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem.
If you miss the “A” train
You`ll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem.
Hurry, get on, now it`s coming.
Listen to those rails a-thrumming.
All aboard, get on the “A” train.
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem. – BILLY STRAYHORN 

Every time I venture out of my southeast Denver neighborhood and head downtown, I am astounded at just how grown up the city has gotten since I worked there. It seems something new appears each time I get off the light rail train and head towards Union Station. There are strange hotels with names that have accents over the vowels. There are gastropubs (gastropubs?). There’s Whole Sol, not to be confused with its next door neighbor Whole Foods. There’s even a Target on the 16th Street Mall, for heaven’s sake. A TARGET! When I worked downtown, I was lucky to find a Rite Aid, and then had to push my way through the street musicians and homeless asking if I could spare a dollar.

But I had a good reason to be going downtown last week. My friend Megan and I were going on an adventure. We were going to take the A Train — not to Harlem but to Denver International Airport. And not because we were flying anywhere; instead, we just wanted to see what all the A-Train fuss was about…..

The A Train, or as it’s really known, the University of Colorado A Line, moves people from Union Station in downtown Denver to the airport and back again. The A Line has had so many problems getting itself to work right that I think the University of Colorado would like to hand its moniker off to its in-state rival CSU. Bill and I had taken the train from DIA to Union Station shortly after it opened, and were one of the few lucky ones whose train didn’t break down, causing significant delays. Woe betide anyone rushing to catch a train in that situation.

Megan, however, had not yet ridden the train, which has been opened for several years already. Want to go on an adventure? she asked me recently, and I agreed.

We met in the beautiful lobby of Union Station. As I waited for her arrival, I recalled the last time I had been in that lobby. It was the day Bill and I left on the California Zephyr for San Francisco. I remember that day well. I was living on oxy and cigarettes. Oh, not really. I had taken one Percocet because I had wrenched my back the night before and could barely walk and needed to withstand 15 hours or more on a train. As for cigarettes, I’ve never smoked one in my life. I just thought that made me sound more interesting and seasoned.

Anyhoo, the lobby is something special, and it was fun to see the travelers mingle with the downtown business people rushing to get their cuppa for a mid-morning pickup. I am waiting by the flower shop I texted her. I will be wearing the Groucho Marx nose and glasses, she responded.

Our plan was to take the train to DIA, and have a fancy-dancy lunch at the fancy-dancy restaurant in the fancy-dancy Westin Hotel that is attached to the airport. As for Megan and me, we are neither fancy nor dancy.

The train takes about 35-40 minutes to make its way from Union Station to the airport. It stops directly in front of the hotel. We disembarked and tried to look suave and debonair as we searched for the restaurant. It is called the Grill & Vine. The ampersand is no accident. It’s like the accent marks over the vowels.

We sat down at approximately 11:50, and finally left at 2:15. Our intention was not necessarily to have a leisurely lunch. The service was just incredibly slow. And we were hungry.

Let’s have burgers, we both agreed when we sat down. Never mind that a burger was 20 bucks. We were on an adventure. But as we sat there awaiting the arrival of our server (a situation we became accustomed to as the lunch progressed), we saw another server walk by with a couple of salads. They looked good, we both agreed.

So when the server finally arrived to take our order, we found ourselves asking for a Caesar salad and a Cobb salad. Little did we know that we wouldn’t see him again for quite some time. I’m pretty sure the chef actually DID take the A Train to Harlem to get the ingredients for our salad. It was close to an hour before our glistening lettuce salads were placed before us…..

As we waited, we dreamed about where we would go if we were actually grabbing a lunch just before boarding a plane to someplace exciting. London, we finally decided. And then to the south of France where Megan could start hunting for property for her next home. It was a dream, after all.

When the salads arrived, we hungrily began eating. We both ate in silence. At last, Megan said, “They’re kind of ordinary, aren’t they? Let’s have dessert.”

So we did. Coconut cake for her; chocolate espresso cake for me…..

We split the bill, as we often do, and put down our respective credit cards. However, for some reason, our server’s version of “splitting a bill” was to charge one of the parties about 10 bucks more. Megan was the lucky winner of the larger bill. To his credit, the server expressed surprise when she pointed out the error, and — as my grandmother would have said — made it right.

As we left the hotel to once again catch the A Train, we turned to one another and said, “We should have had the burger.”

Nevertheless, we enjoyed our adventure very much. Life is short, and time spent with good friends on a train to anywhere is a prize.

Thursday Thoughts

Walkin’ the Walk
Colorado is enjoying what I think is a beautiful late spring/early summer. The weather people are telling us that we are going to be climbing into the upper 90s in the next few days and into next week. But the mornings are simply beautiful. So rather than tackling the boring treadmill at the gym, Bill and I have been going for morning walks. Our goal is between two-and-a-half and three miles, and we have been largely successful. Yesterday morning, we headed south towards our neighborhood park and then up and around to Whole Foods so that I could buy a few things. Bill enjoys walking more if there is a purpose attached to the walk – something in addition to the obvious purpose of staying healthy. Our walk took us past the neighborhood pool and coming towards us on her bike was Addie. Since she couldn’t imagine that we WOULDN’T be coming to watch either her or her sisters swim, she informed us our timing was off. She was finished and Dagny wasn’t starting for an hour. When we told her we didn’t intend to watch swimming, she was taken aback, but recovered in time to say see ya later. It’s fun to live near grandkids.

Dory or Dora?
I am as excited as any child at the fact that Finding Dory will finally be released tomorrow (Friday). I am determined to grab a few grandkids to make it not embarrassing and see the movie as soon as possible. Finding Nemo was one of my favorite movies – not just kids’ movies, but movies overall. I think Ellen DeGeneres could make me laugh watching her vacuum her living room. Not that she vacuums her own living room. The kids have chastised me plenty for inadvertently calling it Finding Dora, but I have started saying the correct name. I get my fishes and my annoying little Spanish-speaking cartoon girls mixed up.

Artistic Training
Kaiya, Mylee, and Cole spent the day with Bill and me on Tuesday. Just after lunch, Addie came by to visit, and brought along makings for an art project. She had paint and canvas and brushes, and a willingness to work with the littler ones. So I dug through my dresser and found three old t-shirts that could be used as painting shirts, put them on the little ones, and the artistic magic began. Addie and I mutually decided giving Cole acrylic paint was a decidedly BAD idea, so he got crayons. He did, however, get a paint shirt….

Cole the painter

Addie Kaiya Cole Mylee patio painting 2016

Lucky Me
One of the bloggers I follow – A Grand Journey – talked about keeping a gratitude journal in her last blog post. Now, I have, of course, heard of this concept before. I even know people who keep such a journal, though I never have. But in her blog post, she mentioned that she had been uncharacteristically down in the dumps a bit as of late, and decided reminding herself of her blessings on a daily basis would help. She did it for 30 days, and it did, indeed, change her mood. Her self-imposed rules were that she would have to write down five things for which she is grateful EACH DAY; she couldn’t repeat; and her gratitude could not be for her family because she already knows how grateful she is for her husband, kids, and grandkids. As she put it, she wanted to “stretch my gratitude muscle.” I have embarked on this challenge, effective yesterday. While I am well aware of how lucky I am, IT IS HARD. Especially the part about not being able to use your family as reasons for gratitude. But it certainly makes you pay attention to the world around you.

Nailed It
I treated myself to a pedicure yesterday (one of my items for which I was thankful yesterday), and the lady sitting next to me was possibly the rudest and crabbiest person I’ve ever been around. I kept my nose in my book so as to not have her direct her ire at me. But the poor nail technician who drew the short straw was being treated incredibly rudely. At one point I heard her ask him, “Why don’t you ever talk?” He said quietly, “We are supposed to not talk too much to our customers to give them peace.”  “Hmphff,” she said. “I think you just can’t speak English.” But to my delight, there was a woman across the room who was very likely in her 90s. She was very pretty and was getting her toenails painted a forest green with a shimmery overcoat. Ms. Crabby Appleton sitting next to me said to her, “I can’t believe you’re getting your nails painted GREEN.” The pretty woman smiled and said, “I think at my age, I can have my nails painted any color I want.”


Forge Ahead

Much as we love spending the winter in Arizona, we are always happy to be back in Denver, for a number of reasons. We are lucky enough to be able to enjoy a second springtime. We see the cactus flowers in Arizona in March and April, and we are back just in time to see the end of the forsythia blossoms and the beginning of the lilacs and the iris. I love to get my garden planted – mostly herbs and a couple of tomato plants – and will put in my petunias just as soon as the tulips die completely back and make room for them.

The pitiful end of my forsythia blossoms

The pitiful end of my forsythia blossoms

Tulips with their BFFs, the dandilions

Tulips with their BFFs, the dandilions

This spring, I have made a few resolutions. It makes sense since most of the resolutions I made in January have been forgotten. Not just neglected; I can’t even remember what they were. Sigh.

I have been feeling like a slug because we got out of the habit of exercising, something we had done faithfully for a long time. And I have been putting on weight, something I conveniently blame on my low fiber diet (rich in carbs and sugar), forgetting that one can eat low fiber without eating ice cream every night after dinner. Sigh again.

So I am facing the upcoming warm months with renewed energy and commitment. I started by going to the gym Monday, and plan to go every Monday, Wednesday and Friday beginning right now. Tuesdays and Thursdays I will lift my measly little weights at home. Hey. It can’t hurt.

Furthermore, while I’m not going on a diet (diets don’t work for me; all I think about is food), I am simply going to cook healthier meals.

While in Mesa, I walked over to our nearby Basha’s most every day of the week. I am determined to walk to the grocery store here as well. King Soopers and Whole Foods are a bit farther away than Basha’s, but no matter. Even if I don’t do it every time, I can do it regularly.

There are simple things around the house that will get me better organized. For example, when I want to remember to take something upstairs, I put Whatever-It-Is on the steps. And then I step over them again and again because heaven forbid I would bend over to pick Whatever-It-is up. And then I would just have to PUT WHATEVER-IT-IS AWAY!

No more! Whatever-It-Is will go up with me the next time I climb the stairs.

And speaking of the stairs, I am determined to stop thinking of walking up the stairs as undertaking the Bataan Death March. The other morning I used the last tissue from the box in the kitchen. I found myself using paper towels or toilet tissue to wipe my nose until I finally realized that it wasn’t going to kill me to walk the exactly 14 steps up to the linen closet upstairs where I keep my boxes of tissues. Our house in Mesa is small, and 14 steps will get you practically anywhere in the house. But I don’t live in Windsor Palace, so the stairs will become my friend.

Sometimes I come to the sudden realization that my glasses are so dirty I can practically not see out of them. I am going to use my handy-dandy microfiber cloth to clean my glasses each and every morning before I put them on.

As part of my healthier eating, I found a recipe for a casserole that uses ground chicken for the meatballs. I halved the recipe and we enjoyed it for dinner, with plenty for leftovers.

Chicken Parmesan Meatball Casserole, courtesy Buns In My Oven

chicken parmesan meatball casserole

For the meatballs:
1 pound lean ground chicken
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 egg
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup milk
For the casserole:
1 pound campanelle pasta (any small shape is fine, such as ziti)
1 jar (24 ounces) marinara sauce
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the pasta. Cook for 1 minute less than package directions state.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

While the pasta is cooking, prepare the meatballs. Add all of the ingredients to a large bowl and use your hands to mix them together well. Form into small balls, about 1 inch in diameter and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until cooked through and no longer pink. Remove from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Add the pasta sauce to a large bowl and stir in the cooked pasta and meatballs. Stir gently to coat everything in sauce.

Spread half of the pasta and meatballs into a 9×13 baking dish. Top with half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning. Bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

Not My Mom’s Cooking: Using My Mussels

For having grown up and lived in a relatively small community in central Nebraska for a lot of their lives, my parents were fairly sophisticated eaters. It’s true when we were growing up, Mom’s cooking was pretty typical meat-and-potatoes fare. That’s what Dad wanted, and he worked hard and was hungry by the end of the day. A cobb salad with grilled chicken would not have passed muster with Mr. Gloor. Roast beef and mashed potatoes were more to his liking.

But I think Mom stretched her cooking muscles once she and Dad were semi-retired and living in Dillon, Colorado. She had more time and probably there were more interesting food supplies available to her. Seafood, for example.

I mentioned before that I enjoy going through Mom’s old recipe box. A few things in that box have surprised me, but none more than the hand-written recipe for Coquilles St. Jacques – basically scallops with mushrooms in a gruyere cheese sauce. Yum. I, of course, never remember her setting a plate of Coquilles St. Jacques down before me in Columbus, Nebraska; however, Jen is positive that Mom actually made such a dish at one time or another. Not for me, but then Mom always did like her best.

Anyhoo, while good seafood wasn’t readily available in Columbus in the 1950s and 60s, Mom and Dad did like them some seafood later in their lives. Bring on the shrimp, the mussels, the oysters, the clams; you name it, they enjoyed it. Thankfully, they had a daughter who lived on the east coast and who frequently traveled with them to places like Florida where seafood was plentiful. Mom could order a huge dish of mussels and eat every single one.

But I don’t think she ever made mussels herself.

For the longest time, mussels intimidated me. There was always all that talk about the beard of the mussel. It seemed so scary. That, and getting the sand out of the shells. I was afraid to tackle them. Plus the whole notion that they’re alive. Eeeeeewwwww.

But I did. And it couldn’t have been less terrifying or more easy. So I serve them a lot when I’m in the mood to entertain with something impressive and festive-looking, but easy. There are many delicious recipes, but mussels in white wine and garlic are my favorite, so that’s what I always make.

I tackle the so-called beard using a needle-nose pliers that you can get at any hardware store. My mussels almost always come from Whole Foods, and their fishmongers carefully sort them so that there are few with broken shells. The mussels are largely farm-raised, and I find most of them don’t even have a beard. (Wild mussels use their beard to attach themselves to rocks or bottoms of bridges. Farm-raised mussels sit in chaise lounges and soak up the sun!) But if they do, simply grab the beard with the pliers and gently pull it out.

Ina Garten suggests soaking the mussels in water into which you have tossed a handful of flour. According to her, the mussels open their shells to eat the flour and the sand is dislodged. I find that isn’t necessary in the way that it IS necessary for clams, which live in the sand. I simply rinse them and rinse them and rinse them again, and I have never had sandy mussels.

One thing to remember when cleaning mussels, however, is that you must take the time to look at each mussel. It must be closed, or close if you tap it on the counter, and the shell must not be broken. It’s a bit time consuming, but easy enough.

Two tidbits before I give you the recipe….

First, I knew a man from Connecticut. (Sounds kind of like There was a man from Nantucket…) He was with me once in a restaurant when I ordered mussels. He laughed, and said when he was growing up on the Atlantic shores of Connecticut, they considered mussels to be “garbage fish.” Mussels were apparently very plentiful and he would find them attached to anything along the shore. Including garbage cans. They would throw them away.

Second, when Bill and I were on our European adventure, as we traveled through the Province region of France, we ate mussels, mussels, and more mussels. The first time we ordered them was in Nice, and they were all-you-could-eat moule e frites (mussels and French fries). They brought us each a bucket of mussels the size of a small garbage can, and they were DELICIOUS. Nevertheless, we couldn’t eat more than one bucket apiece. After about my fifth or sixth time eating mussels in a café along the Mediterranean, I finally told Bill, “Well, that’s it. I cannot and will not eat another mussels for a long, long time.”

I got over it.

Don’t be afraid to give these a try.

mussel wine bread

Mussels in White Wine and Garlic
Adapted from Ina Garten, Food Network

6 lbs. mussels
3 T. butter
3 T. olive oil
1 c. chopped shallots
1-1/2 T minced garlic
1 c. diced tomatoes, drained
1/3 c. chopped Italian parsley
2 T. fresh thyme leaves
1-1/2 c. white wine
2 t. salt
1 t. freshly ground pepper

Rinse the mussels very well, and allow them to soak in water for about 30 minutes. Drain the mussels, then remove any beard using your fingers or a needle-nosed pliers. Scrub the mussels if the shells are dirty. Discard any mussels whose shells aren’t tightly shut or with broken shells.

In a large non-aluminum stockpot, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for 5 minutes; add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes more, or until the shallots are translucent. Add the drained tomatoes, parsley, thyme, wine, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil.

Add the mussels, stir well, then cover the pot and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until all the mussels are opened (discard any that do not open). With the lid on, shake the pot once or twice to be sure the mussels don’t burn on the bottom. Pour the mussels and the sauce into a large bowl and serve hot, with a baguette on the side for dunking.

Serves 4 or 5 adults

Nana’s Notes: The amount of mussels will vary according to the number of people you are serving and how much they will eat. When my grandson Alastair is eating my mussels, he can eat something in the neighborhood of 1-1/2 to 2 lbs. by himself! Adjust the other ingredients accordingly. The mussels look spectacular when they are poured into a big bowl. And taste just as good. But I like to serve them in individual bowls so that each person has their own juice in which to dip their bread. 

This post linked to the GRAND Social.