June 11, 2010 - 7:45 am
Zilch, the fun-to-say synonym for “nothing,” is usually something we look to avoid. “How many fish did you catch today, Phil?” “Zilch.” Or….. “How many offers on your EBay post for that 1972 Carpenter’s album?” “Well, zilch.”
Unless your MO is deep serenity and oneness with the world, when the only subject you want to occupy your thoughts with is that of nothing, zilch is not the most popular of concepts.
But I feel a little differently about zilch. Because my early years were formed on equating zilch with a good time. It’s the name of a dice game I’ve played hundreds of times over the years. It goes by many names, including Farkel, 10000, Greed and Keepers. And it’s a game that’s been around for a good while. The go-to board game resource I found while writing this book, BoardGameGeek, cites its first publication date as 1492 (which makes me wonder if Columbus and his cohorts didn’t play the game on deck of the Santa Maria…it could have happened!!).
Having stood the test of time, you can imagine that Zilch is an easy-to-like game that pretty much anyone can enjoy. I realize there are a couple of other long-standing games that you might not say the same thing about. Checkers is, in my own opinion, something of a, well, two-dimensional game. You go through a lot of similar motions each round, I’ve never sensed a lot of excitement or surprise with checkers (with all due respect to any checkers champions of great skill and mastery who might be reading this post). Chess really isn’t for me, either. I completely understand the degree to which the game captivates its fans and why that would be the case. I just prefer a bit less intensive brain-power to be involved in playing games. A little chill time for the grey cells is part of what I love about games.
But Zilch sits somewhere right in the middle. The chance of the dice, plus a bit of strategy but not too much. Easy to learn. Easy to like. And easy to get addicted to.
So there we were a month ago, about to leave on a week-long vacation with two other couples. We had a house for that week, so were going to really settle in and do a lot of relaxing. No question that games would be part of the scenario! I grabbed a few travel-friendly things, like a deck of cards, a travel cribbage board, Yahtzee sheets. And the tin of dice. This tin of dice that you see in the picture. Inside is the six green dice. But also that scrap of paper covered with my mom’s distinctive handwriting. My mom’s not around any more, but every time I come across something she’d written it gives me a wonderful moment of comfort. It happened a few months ago, moving office furniture. A Paris postcard had fallen behind a bookcase, not one mailed but just a memento from a visit my mother made while I was living there. On the back were notes she’d written about the meal we’d had at the restaurant pictured on the front. A flood of delicious memories came back and it felt like a brief reunion with my dear mother.
Back to the game, it may be humble but that little tin that once held my mom’s favorite fruit -flavored hard candies now holds a wealth of childhood memories in addition to one of my favorite games. All you need is six dice and a piece of paper for keeping score. If you buy a Zilch or Farkel game at a store, it’ll come with fancy little canisters in which to shake the dice, but I don’t go for that folderol. Just shake, rattle and roll!
The first player (highest roller, closest birthday, however you choose….) rolls all six dice. From those dice, she’ll choose at least one of the “pay” die (see below) and set that aside to start her pool of accumulated points for that turn. She’ll roll the remaining dice and again set aside the pay dice of choice and continue. Or not. The strategy for Zilch is to accumulate points, of course. But you’ll lose ALL the points accumulated on a turn if your toss of the dice turns up no pay die at all. The points you earn that turn? You got it: zilch.
The trick is that to get on the scorecard for the first time, you need to have at least 500 points. So at the start it pays to play loosely and just keep rolling until you get that many points. And on any turn during which you end up with pay points from all six dice, you can pick up the dice and start again, adding points to the base earned from the first six. There may be times when you want to risk it instead of playing safe and keep rolling even when you’ve got just one or two dice left.
See? Pretty easy. The win goes to the player who first reaches, or surpasses, 10,000 points. On vacation we played a bit of Yahtzee, some gin rummy, but it was Zilch that really won over my travel mates. We played it for many hours that week, even taking the dice to our favorite haunt Poe’s Tavern to play over beer and burgers one evening. It was not only fun in general, but gave me a bit of extra joy to share with my friends the game that brings back such great family memories for me.
Here’s how you get those points*:
any 5 = 50 points
any 1 = 100 points
any 3-of-a-kind = 100 x face value [three 4s = 400 points]
except that three 1s = 1000 points [love that roll!]
and for the big money:
3 pairs = 2,000 points
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 = 3,000 points
six 1s = 10,000, which is a game-winning roll my friend!
*It’s important to note that all of those points are based only on the results of a single roll. If you rolled one 1 on a turn and two 1s on the next turn, that’s just 300 points, not 1000.
March 29, 2010 - 10:15 am
At one point during the evening Saturday I got up to close the sliding glass door alongside the dining room table. Not necessarily because it was getting too cool (a glorious warm spring evening it was, matter of fact). But out of worry that our raucous laughter might be disturbing the neighbors. One unexpected side effect of finally breaking into that Apples to Apples game I bought a few months ago but hadn’t cracked open yet. Man, did we have fun.
I broke one of the cardinal rules that I set down in Gourmet Game Night when telling readers how to plan a successful game night. One was not to bring out a brand new, never-been-opened game with guests sitting around the table ready to play. There’s cellophane wrapping to deal with, cards to unpack, playing pieces to figure out (and sometimes assemble), rules to read and stumble through together. But I did have a couple elements in my favor: (1) Apples to Apples takes really just a few minutes to warm up to and (2) one of my friends at the table has played it a bunch and helped talk us through it. If you don’t have either or both of those conditions with a new game, it’s ALWAYS best to break into it and familiarize yourself with the rules before having friends over to join you.
But before long, we were old pros. It’s easy to understand why this game won Games Magazine‘s “Party Game of the Year” award in 2000. Trying to defend the word card you chose from your hand that best matches the adjective card drawn by the dealer….it can get pretty hilarious. In one case the adjective was something like “discouraging” and one player tossed “rainbows” into the mix. Rainbows?! Huh?! When pressed to explain, he quickly replied “hey, you ever tried walking to the end of one?” Well, now that you mention it…. But he still lost out. I, on the other hand, managed to convince a friend that my Georgia O’Keefe card best represented the idea of “fresh” thanks to her unique, creative–sometimes suggestive–artistic representation of the world around her.
Another new game we indoctrinated that evening was also a Games “best party game” winner, if a bit sillier. I think it may have gone over better if either we had a couple eight year olds at the table or we’d all had a bit more to drink. Snortabasically is about making farm animal noises — more specifically making the “right” farm animal noise (based on what cards are played and what animals your opponents have hidden behind their little farmhouses) and doing so faster than the others. Not a lot of strategy or creativity called for here. And you could definitely read the player’s enthusiasm with the game by the way they articulated the respective animal’s sounds, a dynamic “OINK OINK OINK” from one player, a mere whisper of a “moo” from another. Not as universally enjoyed on Saturday night as was Apples to Apples, but always nice to have a variety of games on hand to choose from. I can imagine Snorta will be great with kids in the mix, and for those who are kids at heart. Or just have the attention span of one at that moment in time.
The menu was pretty tasty. I fell back on a favorite from my book, Celery Radish and Parsley Salad with Lemon Dressing, served in one-bite portions on porcelain soup spoons. I was recipe testing for another project that day, had some seafood chowder and gnocchi with bacon and corn on hand. The soup went into ramekins and the gnocchi into individual gratin dishes, like you might use for crème brûlée, with spoons alongside for eating. I also cooked up half a dozen Uli’s sausages, cut them into thick slices, skewered each onto a small pick and set them out on a plate, with Dijon mustard alongside for dipping. And my sister cooked the Polenta Squares with Sausage and Spinach from the book too. We ate pretty well, all of it game-friendly and none of it risked smudging up those brand-new Apples to Apples cards on their first game night outing.
If laughter is, in fact, the best medicine, the eight of us got a good dose of medicine on Saturday night! I think a relaxed fun game night sitting around the table together is–no matter what you’re playing–good for what ails us all.
March 16, 2010 - 7:56 pm
It’s not that hard to come up with a good excuse to throw a party. We do it pretty often at this house….not just for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays. But we celebrate made-up holidays like Open That Bottle Night. Or have friends over to see the blooms on our tree peony, and have them stay for dinner. And I threw my husband a 33 1/3 birthday, since his traditional December birth dates comes as such a distracted, chaotic time of the year. Anything for a party!!
So with the release of my latest cookbook looming, I figured that was a no-brainer excuse to gather friends, family, colleagues to help me celebrate. We did just that last week at the book release party I threw for myself. I was so pleased and honored that so many folks came to share a cup of cheer (in the form of Washington wine). Seventy or eighty passed through The Tasting Room, where manager Jen and colleague Sarah were wonderful hosts. I’ve known Jen for a decade or more, from an early connection via the Washington Wine Commission. She still has her toes in Washington Wine, as GM and co-founder of The Tasting Room in Seattle’s Pike Place Market (with a second location in Yakima, which I haven’t made it to yet). I’m a big fan of Washington wines, so having the party in this cool space and sipping local wines was an easy draw. BUT, better yet — Jen’s a big fan of games! She has a growing collection of board games on hand at all times, so customers enjoying their glass of chenin blanc or syrah can be playing a game of Rummikub, Connect 4 or Jenga while they’re at it! It made The Tasting Room about the best place to celebrate the launch of Gourmet Game Night.
Of course it wouldn’t be a cookbook release without some samples of recipes from the book. Dear friend Susan Volland came to the rescue and put together the food for the evening, it was an up-to-eyeballs week for me and cooking volumes just wasn’t in the cards for me. We chose a menu of easy-to-transport items that offered full-flavor bites at room temperature. It was her bright idea to serve them on inexpensive (i.e. disposable) checkers and backgammon boards, and Chinese checkers trays. Fun. The Mole Flank Steak with Pickled Peppers went fast! I rub the flank steak with an easy wet paste of cocoa powder, sesame seeds, chile powders, garlic, then grill it. The steak is sliced and wrapped around pickled peppers to thread onto skewers for serving. Lots of flavor in one little bite!
The same can be said for the more diminutive Pickled Grape and Blue Cheese Skewers. Also very easy, red grapes swim for a spell (about 2 hours ideally) in a marinade of red wine vinegar, spices, bay leaf. Then the grapes are drained and skewered on a small pick with a square of blue cheese. The bright sweet-acid-spicy flavor of the grape contrasts beautifully with the rich creamy character of the cheese, a fun little nibble.
And a crowd favorite was the brutally simple Green Pea and Mint Spread with Crispy Pancetta. The vivid color and fresh flavor of the pea-mint spread is immediately appealing, with that crisp, decadent accent of pancetta to finish. I serve it on wedges of pita bread in the book, but the versatile spread could be served on toasted baguette slices, crackers, or even in little hollowed-out cherry tomatoes.
Lastly, of course there had to be a bite of something sweet. And who can say ‘no’ to chocolate? I figured the Chocolate Tartlets with Brandy Cream would be a crowd-pleaser. Though prepared tartlet shells are available in more and more store and online, what I fell in love with while working on this book was these phyllo tartlet shells. They’re pre-baked and ready to go, so you could use them for countless things. Spoon a bit of my orange-walnut chicken salad into the shells, or spoon the wild mushroom tapenade meant for crostini into these delicate little cups instead. They’re ideal for the chocolate tartlets too, the rich chocolate topped with a dollop of brandy-embellished cream (plain old whipped cream can be used, too).
On the wine front, I chose four different wines for guests to enjoy that night: the Storm King red blend from Camaraderie Cellars, Jester’s Red and chenin blanc from Harlequin, and a wonderful dry riesling from Naches Heights Vineyard.
Great wine, wonderful friends, an enchanting venue, games, good food…..what more could you ask for? I know I couldn’t have asked for more from an evening to celebrate the launch of Gourmet Game Night!
Here’s to your own dose of fun-friends-wine-games-and-good-times just waiting to be enjoyed! No need to dream up an excuse. Any night’s a good night for game night.
March 2, 2010 - 11:30 am
It’s funny that it took this long. But for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that my husband and I played in our first poker tournament. We go to Vegas pretty frequently and have been invited to join in poker tournaments down there now and then, but have always found the prospect just too intimidating. After all, we never even play casually at home (for whatever reason our game-playing crowd doesn’t include many poker players….). Sitting down to a poker table in Vegas without knowing the ropes could be pretty distressing. (I did, however, accept an invitation to play in a blackjack tournament at the Rio once. Didn’t go too badly! I had top chip count at my table halfway through the first round, but busted out before the second round.)
But my husband in particular has a pretty strong affinity for poker. He’s got a wonderfully analytical mind and has been casually studying the rhythm of play, pro habits and percentages while watching World Series of Poker and other poker programs on TV. He’s quiet and thoughtful and just mysterious enough to not let on to players what he’s got up his sleeves (so to speak).
Bob, Dick Stein, me, the lovely Paige Hansen
So in early February when I got the email reminder of the upcoming KPLU
poker tournament, I followed a whim and got us a couple of seats. The “buy-in” for the tournament was a donation to the station, the tournament the dreamchild of KPLU jazz host Dick Stein, himself an avid and serious poker player during his off-air time. This was the third year of the tournament, with about 70 players signed up. Stein and a couple of his KPLU cohorts–Kevin Kniestedt and Paige Hansen–played along, and all three had “bounties” on their heads. The player who busted them out of the tournament earned a T-shirt: “I busted out Dick Stein.” I had a bounty, too, the player at my table to bust me out got a copy of my new Gourmet Game Night
The tournament was held in the busy poker room of Muckleshoot Casino down in Auburn, with their professional dealers and all the trappings of pro play. So it was kind of best-of-both-worlds. A little taste of a real-world poker tournament experience, but with an easy-going public radio crowd for challengers. I had a great time, and like that blackjack tournament in Vegas, was just thrilled to not embarrass myself with terrible play. I made it nearly to the halfway point, about the 30th player to bust out. Got those dreaded pocket aces, with a short stack of chips. Nothing to do but go all in. And just to prove that being dealt two of the top cards in the deck is no guarantee of a winning hand, my tablemate drew three kings. Bye-bye Cynthia!
I had a great time following the rest of the players, particularly seeing my husband doing so well. Can’t say how proud I am that he kept at it so well over those four-plus hours of play. And busting with pride that he won the whole tournament!!! Santa Barbara, here we come. The prize included tickets on Amtrak Coast Starlight and a couple nights down there. Can’t wait. Here are some shots from the tournament, toward the end you’ll see Bob playing the final table.
What’s next for Bob? He always laughs when people ask. No big plans to make weekly trips to Muckleshoot or hone his game for the circuit. But I think we’d both enjoy working a little more poker into our game routine here at home. And maybe one of these days we’ll actually sit down to one of those tables in Vegas.
November 10, 2009 - 9:42 am
My good friend Susan Volland pointed out a mistake in the book before it’s even gone to press. Egad, the nightmare of every author. (And I’m not kidding myself that there won’t be others that don’t go discovered for a while….) Thankfully it’s a small error, more a clarification than anything.
I state in the acknowledgements that, in addition to have been a big help as a fresh pair of well-trained eyes reviewing recipes in the final rounds, she also is a “manic Bananagrammer.” Bananagrams is a very popular word game with a delightfully simple premise: a bag full of letter tiles (100-plus) and at least two competitive word lovers. Kind of like free-form, fast-paced Scrabble, players work to make words that cross and link, using up their tiles as quickly as possible. (Note that the game is not to be confused with another Bananagram I found on the Web: a banana-themed singing telegram service.)
The only problem is that the game Susan actually plays is Syzygy. Essentially the same idea. Different style of tiles. No bright yellow banana bag. No Facebook page. Just the letters and those many thousands of words just waiting to be made!
So I stand corrected. Susan is a manic Syzygyer. Not a manic Bananagrammer! Either way, she’s still a word nut.