Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Snowstorm Skiing

It was snowing on Sunday at Donner Ski Ranch but there wasn't any question about whether or not we would ski. We had a lot of fun, especially because we were skiing with our friends who live in Sacramento now. We first met when our kids were in nursery school together. This weekend the four boys were skiing/boarding together, while we parents went off and skied together (we can't keep up with them anyway). We just couldn't get over how cool it was that they were having fun hanging out together even though they don't live in the same town anymore and only see each other about once a year.
The weather improved on Monday and today it was much sunnier, so we could look east toward Donner Lake, and see all the other familiar landmarks like Crow's Nest and Castle Peak.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Baking Things

I don't know what got into me, but yesterday I baked the orange pumpkin cloverleaf yeast rolls featured on the cover of the February Gourmet magazine, and a batch of chocolate chip cherry oatmeal cookies from my new baking book I got for Christmas, The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet. They were both good, but not completely satisfying.
Rolls: I had trouble with the active dry yeast this time; it didn't foam. This has only happened to me once before. I know the water temperature was perfect because I used a thermometer (which I don't always do). I threw out the first batch, and tried a second envelope. It was from the same pack, so I didn't have much confidence that it would be better than the first envelope. It foamed a little, but should have foamed a lot because there was a tablespoon of sugar in the warm milk. I went ahead and used it anyway, but the rolls were a bit heavy, although with a great flavor. We ate them toasted with honey for breakfast.
I did a little research on yeast and found out that 1)too much sugar can kill yeast, and 2)dissolving it in milk can be difficult and sometimes it clumps (though I don't know why that would inhibit the yeast). It seems I have to do an experiment on this for myself to see if it was the sugar or the milk that was the problem or indeed just some dud yeast. Will publish results shortly.
Cookies: The cookies are delicious but it's a bit of a waste of the dried tart cherries, I think, since the chocolate chips kind of overwhelm them. We are really into these dried tart cherries for our morning hot cereal, and I have put them in scones, too. They are a little pricey so I will save them for places where they really shine out. I love this cookbook, though; lots of great baking information about ingredients, techniques, etc. I will try some of the other, more complex recipes since judging a baking cookbook on the basis of oatmeal cookies doesn't seem quite fair. I will be writing more about this book.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New President

Photo by Damon Winter/New York Times
I listened and watched yesterday, and today, to the inauguration and to all the stories of the people who were there. I heard Obama's inaugural address when he gave it yesterday, read it in the morning paper, and listened to it again today. I looked at the galleries of photos online, and the ones in the paper. I think maybe now it's beginning to sink in that we really do have a new president, one that I can support. I'm not sure we can accomplish everything he laid out in his address, but I am hopeful. I don't think I have ever felt so hopeful about what our president can accomplish, even if it's mostly to undo the mistakes of the last eight years.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Trip to San Jose

My youngest son was recommended by his band teacher for an honor band at a conference for music educators. So off we went to San Jose for a day and a half. He played music for seven hours on Friday, while I wandered around the city and brought him food at intervals. I made two trips to Bijan bakery, which I had read about online, and savored every buttery crumb of my pastry and foamy drop of my cappuccino each time. The photo above is the new San Jose city hall. There are a lot of new buildings, pedestrian walkways, and public art in San Jose. I never knew the two 1968 Olympic athletes below were from SJ State.
On Saturday my son rehearsed some more, and then played a concert Saturday afternoon. The concert was stunning and the parents and the gathered music teachers gave the student musicians a standing ovation. When my son came back to our hotel on Friday night, he was humming the themes from the pieces they played, and kept describing his favorite moments in the Mahler excerpt. He told me he had never played in an ensemble where everyone was that good. The day after we came home, he had downloaded the entire Mahler symphony that the excerpt was from onto his mp3 player. I think the best thing about the whole experience for my son was that he discovered Mahler.
For me the best part was planning what I was going to do in San Jose for a whole day by myself. I had no one else to accommodate (except meeting my son for lunch). There's not a lot to see in San Jose, but after researching the options, I chose the Hakone Gardens and the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, both places devoted to aesthetic and spiritual contemplation.
The Hakone Gardens were completely empty at 10 am on a Friday, nothing was in bloom except one tiny pink blossom on a plum tree. The scene was wintry and austere; there's a word in Japanese to describe this quality but I don't remember what it is. It's not a big garden, but it exerts a powerful effect. It is a place that demands slowing down, looking closely, listening, smelling.
The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum took me back thousands of years in the planetarium show about the links between astrology, astronomy, and the Mithraic religion. The collection of Egyptian artifacts in the museum is surprisingly rich, presented with a slightly more spiritual focus than a traditional museum: how people worshiped, what they believed, how the concept of the divine and of beauty evolved through different periods. I loved the items from the Amarna period of Ahknaten.
At night my son and I went to the outdoor spa at the hotel. As I leaned back into the heated water, I looked up and saw the constellations I had just seen on the planetarium ceiling: Orion, Taurus, Perseus. They are no longer central to our lives; we hardly notice them now. But I was glad to look up and be able to see them that night. And after he read the info about San Jose that our hotel room provided, my son told me why I was able to see those constellations: the city of San Jose is one of the first cities to use yellow sodium street lights to cut down on light pollution (in part because of the nearby Lick Observatory).
By the time we left on Saturday, I was beginning to get a little fond of San Jose.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Garden

This soft, inviting soil is the result of several of hours of digging yesterday. My visit to the farm and the warm spell we've been having finally drew me out into the garden to contemplate my raised bed. The last few months I've been ignoring it, ever since my last crop didn't thrive, wet weather sent me indoors, and I discovered that roots from neighboring plants had penetrated the bed. This latter item might not seem so discouraging, but there was a thick layer of matted roots like a sponge 3-4 inches below the surface of my entire bed, sucking up water and nutrients. The roots are from either the Cecile Brunner rose or our orange muscat grapes, or both. These plants were gifts when we moved into our home, so have been established for more than ten years. I have to honor their persistence and hardiness and I love they way they cover our back wall with green grape leaves and pale pink blossoms. (We have never gotten any grapes from the vines although our farming friends in Yolo County--who gave us the grave vines--have, and they are delicious.) But I was not at all happy with their invasion and conquering of my raised bed.
This is not a giant bushy caterpillar but a chunk of the root mat I dug up. Once I had dug up most of it, and severed with my shovel as many roots leading into the bed as I could find (one was bigger around than my little finger), I dug in a bag of chicken manure and added more nursery mix. In the course of my digging I came across a lot of worms. Now the bed can sit for a couple of weeks before I plant it. Now I can get excited again about what to plant. In the meantime, I am planting some seeds to transplant into the bed as starts. My garden is beginning again.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

That's Commissioner Norton, to You!

My sister was sworn in on Wednesday night as a commissioner of the Board of Education of the SF Unified School District. You can read all about it, see some better photos, and even see the herky jerky video I shot of her remarks, at her web page.
It was really wonderful to see her come full circle. A year ago she declared her candidacy, and began campaigning, and now she takes up the job. What a journey it has been, and it's only just beginning.
Her daughters made a big splash at the event. First her youngest chatted up Mayor Newsom and got his autograph. He made a point of mentioning her in his introduction to swearing Rachel in, saying she "has a lot of energy." Then when Rachel got up there to speak and began by thanking her husband Tim and daughters (and me!), they rushed the stage and let out a few shrieks. Tim had to corral them back to their seats, while Rachel giggled a bit and announced that once again, the Norton family had disrupted the proceedings. But all went smoothly and her speech was gracious and short.
I thought about how great it was for her daughters to see her up there being sworn in. It made me remember when my mom graduated from medical school (I was a teenager then) and how proud I was of her. Some things stick with you.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Favorite Quote

This is what my eighth-grader wrote on one of his high school applications that asked for a favorite quote:
"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
French pilot/explorer/author

It's one of the most famous quotes from The Little Prince, which I'm pretty sure he's never read. So I went and asked him how he found it. He had read about Saint-Exupéry in a book about real-life harrowing adventures, and the pilot part caught his attention (since he's really into aviation). So he Googled Saint-Exupéry and found out more about him, and found the quote.

Reading this, and his application essay, I found out a bit more of what goes on inside his head. There's a lot going on in there, and I only know a smaller and smaller piece of it. And I get the feeling that's just how he likes it. Maybe that's one of the reasons he chose this quote.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year

We spent New Year's Eve on our friends' farm up in Yolo County (I love how the dried sunflowers above look like street lights). I love walking around the farm, even on a cold, misty day with the dense tule fog pressing against the earth. Usually there are wide open vistas 360 degrees around the farm, but this time the fog made it feel closed in and isolated. I am always struck by the large scale on their farm. There is so much space. This year, while I was tending my 4x8 raised bed, they were cultivating a kitchen garden that is twice the size of the footprint of our house. In addition to their garden they planted apricots and plum trees, pomegranate and currant bushes, and berry vines. Not to mention the habitat restoration they are doing with the Cache Creek Conservancy.
Most of their garden is fallow now, like mine, although they have herbs and broccoli rabe and chard. When I look at their garden, mine seems insignificant, and I begin to feel ashamed of the measliness of my successes in my 32 sq. feet. Then my friend casually mentioned that they planted leeks but they might have planted them too early and may need to replant them. The whole leek portion was about twice as large as my whole raised bed. It made me remember that in any garden, one crop not making it isn't a big deal. That's just how gardens go sometimes.
Even more than the scale of the farm garden, my friend's attitude inspires me anew. New year, new garden. There are some things I want to try. If they don't work out, I'll try something else.
For our New Year's feast we had cheeses from Iowa, homemade chorizo sausage from the farm, olives and a little bacalao. Then we had oysters that we bought unshucked from Hog Island Oyster Farm at the Ferry Building. That was just the appetizers. At 6 pm we had pasta with a pork "sugo", a rich, tomato-y sauce. At 8 pm we had brined pork crown roast, freshly harvested broccoli rabe, and salad. At 9 pm, farm-raised pumpkin pie. The bonfire commenced at 11 pm (it took a half an hour to get it going because it was so damp and cold outside). Champagne at midnight.

Gathering tumbleweeds for the bonfire.
Remains of the bonfire, Jan. 1.