Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mysterious Thursdays

I am thrilled about my mystery box from Mariquita Farm, which delivers the boxes on alternate Thursday nights to the restaurants they are delivering to. You sign up ahead of time, meet the smiling and efficient Julia outside, pay $25 cash and receive your bounty. That's it.
The above photo shows what was in it--can you identify everything? (I needed the farm's cheat sheet.) The cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes, carrots, beets, onions, two bunches of basil, and pickling cucumbers are the easy ones. Those knobby white roots on the left are parsley roots, the green-striped melon is a charentais, and the herb with light flowers is a bunch of savory. This is worth way more than what I paid, and not knowing what I was going to end up with only increased my delight and pleasure.
Everything is beautiful and fresh and so far is delicious (onions in the enchiladas I made tonight, carrots and cherry tomatoes in the salad). I have plans for pickling the cucumbers with a spicy Moroccan cider vinegar pickle recipe, lots of salads, pesto, and a vegetable soup. Yay for summer!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer Sewing Camp

This summer I have enrolled again in summer sewing camp, for which I am the sole instructor and participant, which is fine with me. It's really about letting myself play with fabric and projects I've dreamed up without feeling like I should be doing something else. I do have to credit Amy Karol, the author of Bend The Rules Sewing, as instructor in absentia, since some of the projects I've wanted to make are in her book.
Such as this tote bag. Actually I've been using it as a purse, and I made two identical ones because I found this great organic cotton fabric piece at SCRAP that was big enough for two purses. Then, since the fabric is reversible, I did not make it with lining as Amy designed it but instead had to finish the inner seams with bias trim, which I made myself from beige gingham. And I made the straps two-tone so I could use a cool IKEA fabric sample. All the fabric was either from SCRAP, thrift stores, or a free sample.
But for some reason this darn project was really tough. I can't tell you how many seams I ripped out and had to do over. It's kind of embarrassing because the design is very simple--I'm not sure why I kept screwing it up. Maybe because the fabric is thick, and the seams with bias tape were quite bulky so I often went off course and found myself sewing crooked. Amy writes that sometimes sewing projects get "jinxed" and you just have to give up. It was nice to know that even a sewing goddess like her has failures. I did not give up and they turned out nice, but now I am wary of simple tote bags.
This tea cozy, on the other hand, I whipped up in an evening. I feel joy every morning when I put it on our teapot, since we have switched to drinking tea in the mornings. Before, we were wrapping dishtowels around our teapot to keep the tea warm and it did not look very elegant.
The fabric is screen-printed linen sample from SCRAP that I got a long time ago and was saving for something wonderful. The lining and piping are also from SCRAP, and the batting is from an old quilt of my son's. I found some excellent instructions online from a site called "The Rusty Bobbin." Amy also has a design for a tea cozy but Rusty Bobbin's incorporated batting and that's the kind I wanted. This kind of tea cozy makes me think of my mom since she went through a phase of making tea cozies for friends except hers had hand-batiked custom fabric on the outside. I remember the smell of the wax she used when she did the batik. I guess it's obvious where I get my crafting urges.

Right now I am engaged in hanging some textiles that necessitated purchase of a staple gun. This is a kind of scary thing. When this comes to fruition I will post about it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Apron

I just finished this apron and gave it to my friend June. I've been wanting to make it since January but didn't get around to it during school. I love the pattern design--very flattering and slightly retro. It is the "Mango Tango" pattern from A is for Apron, designed by Joan Hand Stroh. I think her apron designs are great. She also sells her aprons at her Etsy shop. I think I will make another one with this pattern but one thing I will alter is make the ties longer. They are not long enough to tie a bow in the back!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hike on the Hazelnut Trail

We had a little difficulty finding San Pedro Valley County Park, which contains the Hazelnut Trail, but only because we got off on the wrong exit in Pacifica and had a tour of the homes on Reina del Mar before making our way to Linda Mar and San Pedro. The Hazelnut Trail zigzags up the side of Montara Mountain through thickets of ceanothus, manzanita, California huckleberry, and other more exotic shrubs, and under old coast live oaks, bay trees and, of course, California hazelnut. Occasionally you can peer over the brush at the ocean or the other side of the valley, but much of the hike is through an overgrown green tunnel (and watch out for the poison oak.) My husband picked the hike, since it was about the right distance for a hike under two hours, and also because it has a ridiculous diversity of plant life. This partial list he found online by a botanist at Stanford of 68 plant species seen on this trail helped me narrow down some of the unfamiliar plants I took photos of on the hike. And there are many more that I just didn't have time to snap since we were trying to finish within 2 hours. We saw many lovely Douglas iris, sticky monkey flower, paintbrush, ferns and manroot (also known as wild cucumber).
Here are some of the plants that were new to me:
Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia calycina)
Berries of False Solomon's Seal (Smilacine racemosa var amplexicaulis) turning from green to red. Love those stripes!
Fringe cups (Tellima grandiflora), named because those little bells are fringed like eyelashes.
Pacific starflower (Trientalis latifolia), which grow in a starry carpet in shady bowers.
Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum), a shrubby plant up to 4 or 5 feet tall that seems to be well-loved by hummingbirds. We noticed the sooty older leaves covered by a fungus that apparently does not harm the plant.
Along with the plant list, I relied heavily on the Native Plants of Montara Mountain website, that is organized by flower and berry color, as well as by common and Latin names. Now I want to go do the hike again and find all the plants I missed, like the rare golden chinquapin and fetid adder's tongue. Speaking of adders, we saw three garter snakes (harmless).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Mockingbird Tale

This is papa mockingbird, our very visible neighbor. He has been chasing other mockingbirds (all except his timid partner), starlings, blue jays and robins away from our ivy wall and backyard for months. We believe he regards our house and garden as his, but he tolerates us when we come out to tend our garden or feed the compost. He likes to find the highest perch around--the top of our satellite dish, the fencepost on our back wall, the top of the telephone pole in front--and cycle through his vast repertoire of songs. But his behavior changed about a month ago, when he began valiantly protecting his nest in our neighbor Henry's magnolia tree. He started hanging around the tree all the time, or within about 20 feet of it, swooping from the roof, to the back wall, to the neighbor's fence, and issuing sharp chirps, either as a warning not to get too close or a warning to his partner that potential danger was near. This tree is right up against our fence, so we were intimately aware of the mockingbird's comings and goings while building the nest, but the foliage is thick enough that we have never seen it and have not wanted to poke around too closely for fear of disturbing it. About a week ago we realized that we were hearing faint peeps from the nest, and papa's stern chirps grew more frequent. A couple of times we saw him chasing off other mockingbirds and once a crow. This was a vulnerable time for the baby bird. Then yesterday, papa's chirping and swooping raised to a fever pitch, and I heard plaintive peeps throughout the day. Even I was getting a little tired of his protective fussing and helicopter parenting. How long could this go on? But today, he's gone. There are no harsh chirps nor little peeps coming from the tree. This afternoon I went over and peered up into the tree and saw the nest, but there no signs of life. We think maybe one of those predator birds got the baby bird. Why else would they all disappear overnight? It's sad. I guess if we were so aware of the nest, others were, too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ready to Celebrate With...Papayas?

We've been buying a lot of these Marabol papayas. The ones we've been getting are from Mexico. They look like this on the outside:
They are a different variety than the Hawaiian ones, that look like this:
The difference is, the Marabol ones are less flavorful and sweet, but much cheaper, maybe $3 each. I used to only buy the Hawaiian ones because of that--when the Hawaiian ones (the variety is Solo) are best they are bright red-pink inside and incredibly sweet and juicy and floral--but they can be $5 each and are much smaller. My husband started buying the Marabols because he liked them, but I tend to want to put them in things rather than eat them straight.
Like papaya salsa:
Or how about a smoothie?
In Latin America they make papaya smoothies with lots of milk and sugar. We add strawberries, bananas, orange juice, yogurt, or whatever else is in the fridge.
And so, what's to celebrate, beside springtime?
I took my last final today, in syntax! This was a class that took up lots and lots of notepaper drawing trees (not oaks, but sentences). Here's an example from my studying for the final, for which I used 28 notebok pages:
The final was hard, and there were no other assignments. One final, one grade. Here is a sample sentence: "It is certain to be demolished." Here's another one: "Whom will he be persuaded to visit?" Analyze those, will you?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Still Spring on Mt. Tam

We went for another great hike last weekend, to Bolinas Ridge, where it's still green and flowery. While San Francisco was smothered in a blanket of fog, from the ridge we looked down on the cottony blanket. We could even see the tip of Sutro Tower poking up from the fog (not quite visible in this photo). There were lots of California poppies and blue lupine and clover (maybe owl's clover, I'm not sure which one), none of which I took a photo of because I take them for granted.
I did take a photo of two flowers I couldn't identify. I've been looking in my field guides and online at Calflora, but still have not found these. The first one was growing right alongside the trail on the sunny exposed slopes:
The other one was in a shady bower below some oak trees, near where a creek runs down the hill, although it was dry now.
Any ideas?

Note: I found out that the top flower is Bellardia trixago, a native wildflower from the Mediterranean that has naturalized here, thanks to a reply from a kind staff person from the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. They have a great website with a log of citings of different species in specific places.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lunch at the French Laundry

My husband and I had the good fortune help our friend Mark and his wife Karen celebrate his birthday at the French Laundry this weekend. Before we had even gotten out of the car, we were impressed by the restaurant's beautiful garden, and while we waited for our friends, we saw a chef in his white apron scurry across the street to get a bunch of herbs for our lunch. About our lunch, what is there to say? The food was perfect. There was absolutely nothing you could quibble with about it. Each course--all nine of them--was exquisite. The service was discreet, knowledgeable and helpful without going overboard in any way. Even afterwards, although I felt full, I did not feel that there was a crise de fois waiting for me around the corner. That evening, as we remembered our meal, I made a comment about it being inspiring for our own cooking, and we wondered whether we could achieve grilled mackerel en escabeche with orange slices, fennel, chorizo and saffron emulsion with the silky texture and mild flavor of the French Laundry's without being oily and strong-tasting.

But does a meal like that really bring inspiration to the round of breakfast-lunch-dinner cooking we do every day? Or is it just a fantasy world of tartare of Kuroge beef from Shiga Prefecture and Moulard duck fois gras en terrine that we live in for a couple of hours, until the magic stops, and we're back to the reality of burritos and spaghetti with only a faint memory of cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze topped with California sturgeon caviar? Honestly, it's unlikely that I will attempt to make the New Bedford sea scallop course, which involved trimming the scallop, creating a mousse with the scallop trimmings and molding it together with the scallop to cook it sous vide, then rolling the outside of the scallop in powdered hazelnuts and serving it on a puddle of black truffle sauce with a soupcon of melted leeks (my favorite dish, if I had one, and one whose preparation one of the staff described for us in detail).

And yet, I did feel a renewed interest in food upon our return. No, I did not go to the specialty shop to ask for Kuroge beef (they probably don't have it anyway), but I didn't just throw my top sirloin steak in the pan either. I trimmed the fat, rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and watched it carefully to judge when it was done. I went out and bought a pineapple so we can try to somehow recreate the golden vanilla-roasted pineapple on coconut sorbet. I haven't looked for mackerel yet, but last night's red snapper I marinated in a Moroccan chermoula sauce, baked it in its sauce and spooned out the juices to sop up with bread when it was done. Maybe I would have done all those things without going to the French Laundry, but somehow I feel I did them with more attention and care. Every once in a great while, we need an immersion in savarin au citron, surrounded by citrus vierge and drizzled with Per Mio Figlio olive oil, to bring some creativity back to our table at home.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Birding on Mt. Davidson

Photo by Donna Dewhurst, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I had a great morning birding today with a group organized by Nature in the City. There were about a dozen of us including expert birder Dominik Mosur and a couple of other highly knowledgeable birders. Normally when I bring my binoculars up there to look for birds, I see hawks and lots of hummingbirds and white-crowned sparrows, but I've been unsuccessful at seeing the smaller birds in the trees and thickets. Today I learned to concentrate on the edges of the forested areas, and watch the patches of sunlight because that's where the insects are and thus the birds. I also learned that the best time for seeing spring migrants is when the wind is from the east, blowing the migrants off course toward us. I watched Dom listening for birds and then locating them visually. I also learned that I probably need to get better binoculars.
We saw many birds, some residents and some of them migrants on their spring migration, headed north. First off, we heard a winter wren singing off the forested path. The expert birders located it and Dom set up his scope, so we all caught a glimpse of it singing, beak open. Further along we watched the fierce Anna's hummingbirds defend their elderberry bush, and then Dom found a lazuli bunting in some Scotch broom. He set up the scope again and we all gazed at it. Here's one that's a bit more blue than the one we saw:
Photo by Dave Menke, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
We saw a red-tailed hawk like the one below, as well as red-shoudered hawk, Cooper's hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks. I can recognize the first two kinds on my own, but not the Cooper's or sharp-shinned.
Photo by Lee Karney, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
We saw a large flock of cedar waxwings catching insects and being chased off by the hummingbirds, and a pair of band-tailed pigeons. We saw a Wilson's warbler darting around in a bush (that's the yellow one at the top of this post).
We watched an olive-sided flycatcher (one of the migrants) on a dead tree swoop off repeatedly to catch an insect, and return to his perch, for about 15 minutes. I learned that they wipe a bee's stinger off on the branch before they eat it! You don't see it in the photo below, but the feathers from the back are iridescent emerald green, which probably helps them blend in to the central American jungles where they winter. They are a threatened species, mostly because their forest habitat is being clear-cut. This photo does show its distinctive shape of the head.
No photo credit, from a Canadian government website
We also saw an orange-crowned warbler, a tiny thing with no particular markings to distinguish it, as you can see from the photo below. This is a bird that I would never ever have found with my own eyes or even my own binoculars, since I could barely see it even with my binocs. In the scope, I could even see the tiny orange patch on the back of its head, which you also can't see in this photo.
Photo by Donna Dewhurst, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I did not mess around trying to get any of this with my camera. But I do have a better sense now where to look when I go up to Mt. Davidson on my own.
Note: Jeff, a fellow birder on the walk, also blogged about it and found some even more gorgeous bird photos here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The April Garden

There are lots of things growing in the raised bed right now. With all the rain, interspersed with sunshine, they just can't help but grow. In the foreground, chard on the left, African Blue Basil on the right. Behind the basil are the sugar snap peas that are just starting to flower. In a row just to the right of the chard are lettuces, but they are too small to see in this photo, as are the row of carrots to the left of the peas. I think I will put in some more lettuces in a week or so right in the middle. In the way way back is a volunteer potato plant. Love those volunteers.
Below is a cymbidium flower spike that my husband coaxed out of a discarded old plant he found at Urban Ore. It took a few years, but it's the kind of gardening challenge he likes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Husband's Walk

Last Friday I got to go on my husband's walk. He discovered this trail in the hills behind the Claremont Hotel, in the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. When I say "discovered," I mean he knew about it vaguely but he started going there after work to walk a couple of weeks ago. In fact, he has gone every day after work for the past few weeks. It is really putting him in shape. Parts of the trail are ridiculously steep, like the section above that seems like you are going to run right off a cliff. Once you get up over the ridge it's magical, like a hidden world far from the city. There is a famous eucalyptus tree with some famous great horned owls. You can see some great photos of the owls from a few years ago here. He hasn't seen the owl yet, but we heard it when I hiked with him. There are many songbirds and hummingbirds and hawks. When I was there I saw about a dozen butterflies that might have been Painted Ladies but none alighted long enough for me to get a good glimpse. There are also other people hiking the trail as well, but they are interesting to look at, too. On Friday there was a small group of kids and adults having a Friday night pizza picnic on a log. I'm glad my husband has an escape.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

African Adventure

I have been admiring our new cymbidium in the sunlight on our deck. I got it for my husband for our anniversary. It's called Arab Trader 'African Adventure.' I can't explain the name, except that marriage is an adventure and ours is a beautiful flowering.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lots and Lots of Snow

This is our car after a night of snow up in the mountains. We dug it out, drove to Sugar Bowl, and skied on 18 inches of fresh powder. Or tried to ski. I felt more like a snow removal vehicle than a skier.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Weekend Walks

Photo credit: Lee Karney/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I am loving my weekend walks with my husband. Today was a real highlight, since we explored a trail on Mt. Tam while our son was playing a soccer scrimmage in San Rafael. We hiked up to Phoenix Lake, around it, and up Fish Gulch almost to Lake Lagunitas. The Fish Gulch trail was quiet--so quiet that we saw a bobcat trotting up the trail ahead of us.
Picture Source: ddebold and Animal Photos!

The steep walls of the canyon were thick with redwoods and ferns. On our way down a Stellar's Jay made sure we knew he was there by flying across the trail and squawking at us. As in many wooded places, we heard many more birds than we saw, such as a hawk and the far-off knocking of a woodpecker. We saw only one other human in this canyon, on a bike, going down the other side. I felt like we had a glimpse of what Mt. Tam was like before humans logged it and built houses and roads on it.
When we came home I looked in my wildflower field guide to identify three of the wildflowers we saw. Here they are:
Checker Lily
Red Larkspur
Indian Warrior

Wildflower photos © Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College, from CalPhotos

(I forgot my camera so I had to find photos I could use online. It seems like there are more and more photos available now that can be used without securing permission. I always like to check because I want to respect photographers' wishes about how their photos are used.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Soda Bread

I made this soda bread yesterday, for St. Patrick's Day. The recipe was from the Silver Palate Cookbook, but I made some changes like reducing the sugar and making 2/3 of the total flour whole wheat (I think this bread can take a lot of playing around with different flours). The dough is very wet like a cornbread batter, so it's the easiest of all the three I made to mix. You bake this one in a skillet so you get wedges when you cut it. My version is below. It was an excellent breakfast bread, especially with the currants. It was also a little lighter than the other two, probably because it has baking powder and baking soda and two eggs. We ate it split in half, toasted under the broiler, with lots of butter. I'm not sure which one I like best...sometimes it's nice without currants, like the first two I did. Sometimes it's nice sweet, like the first and third. Don't forget the Kerrygold butter!
Before the recipe, I wanted to mention that I discussed St. Patrick's Day in my ESL conversation group with students from an Asian country and two former Soviet republics. I tried to find out if they had anything equivalent--a holiday that celebrates another country from which many immigrated to their country--but not surprisingly, they couldn't think of any. I did hear about some other interesting holidays from their countries, and about how old holidays promoted by the USSR have given way to new holidays celebrating the now independent republics' much older holidays. There are certainly many complicated reasons that we celebrate the holidays that we do.

"Grandma Clark's Soda Bread," modified
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 cups whole wheat flour (I used 1 cup graham flour and 1 cup white whole wheat)
1 cup white bread flour
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dried currants
1-3/4 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, well beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Smear 1 tablespoon of butter around in a ten-inch cast iron skillet. Melt two tablespoons of butter separately and set aside. Mix dry ingredients together. Add currants to dry ingredients and toss to coat well. Whisk together buttermilk, eggs and melted butter. Add to the dry ingredients and mix just until blended. Do not overmix. Spoon batter into prepared skillet and smooth top with a spatula. Bake until golden brown and puffed, about 1 hour. Cool for ten minutes, remove from skillet, and cool completely on a rack. Cut into wedges to serve.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

March Planting

It's a beautiful day, and the garden is calling. I have been meaning to put some more seeds in the raised bed, so today was the day.
On this side I put in more sugar snap peas (you can see the ones I planted earlier at the lower righthand corner) and a row of mixed greens. The chard, at the top, are starting to get thick and leafy.
On this side I put in a few more sugar snap peas (bottom) and two rows of carrots, orange and purple.
As I was watering it all down, a small flock of cedar waxwings came by to eat the ivy berries. They were secretive and quiet, alert for the starlings and mockingbird who own the place. Something startled them and they flew together to the rose bush and waited and watched for about a minute, then decided it wasn't worth it and flew away. My husband says he's seen them in the backyard before, but that was my first sighting. They are dramatic with their pointed crests and black eye bands, and their bodies are sleek pale brown with a tinge of green. Also keeping me company in the yard were the hummingbirds and a flock of bushtits.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Blood Orange Cake All Over the Place

Besides the soda bread (see previous post), this month's Bon Appetit also has a recipe for and gorgeous photo of a blood orange upside down cake with polenta. My friend Nancy made it for our book club meeting this week, and served it with creme fraiche, and it was a sensation. I decided I had to bake it, too, and I did on Friday (that's mine in the photo above). We all enjoyed it, although the boys were not quite as enthusiastic as the book club had been. Then tonight, we went out to dinner at Flour + Water (hot restaurant in the Mission featured in the NY Times a few months ago with outstanding pizzas and pastas). And what was on their dessert menu? The blood orange upside-down cake with polenta. Of course we had to try it. It was the same exact cake, except made into an individual cake with one slice of carmelized blood orange on top. The cake was just a tad lighter (maybe more egg whites? cake flour?) but still with the crunch of polenta. And I believe they went for whipped cream on the side. What I want to know is, did Flour + Water see Bon Appetit and decide they had to make this cake, too? Or did some pastry chef create it elsewhere and Bon Appetit jumped in with its own version? Or is it just one of those recipes floating out there whose time is now? (Bon Appetit is growing on me, but I still miss Gourmet.) As good as it is, I think I have had enough blood orange upside down cake for a while now.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Quest for the Best Soda Bread

This March I decided I finally have to sort out the soda bread question. Maybe it's an urge to connect up with my Irish roots. Or maybe it's an excuse to use up some of the flours I keep buying.* Whatever it is, this month it's soda bread in my kitchen.
Okay, I admit it, the immediate trigger was a photo in this month's Bon Appetit of a slice of Mrs. O'Callaghan's soda bread slathered with yellow Irish butter. The loaf above is the result of Mrs. O'Callaghan's recipe. I think it's pretty gorgeous (and you should see Mrs. O'Callaghan, whose photo is also in the magazine but unfortunately not on the website), and we all liked the taste, especially slathered with Kerrygold Irish butter. The texture is slightly crumbly as opposed to the chewiness of a yeast loaf. But it's moist and hefty and rustic and the ideal vehicle for butter. Strangely, the comments on epicurious regarding this recipe all said it was too dry, many added extra buttermilk, and some people couldn't get it to come out at all. Mine was not too dry, but my only criticism is that it's a little on the sweet side, with 1/2 cup of brown sugar. Brown sugar! I suspect this is an Americanization because last time I was in the British Isles, brown sugar was not to be found. I wonder what Mrs. O'Callaghan really uses. But we ate it up in 24 hours. Four thumbs up.
Next I tried 101 Cookbooks' recipe for Irish Mum's Brown Bread. I got graham flour especially for it. Above is the result. It's a smaller loaf, with less flour and a bit wetter dough so I baked it in a loaf pan. I love the coarseness of the graham flour. The boys did not like it as much as Mrs. O'Callaghan's, probably because it has no sugar. But it has an egg, which I think makes it a bit stronger and maybe a tiny bit lighter. I can't wait to have some toasted with marmalade for breakfast tomorrow.
But I'm not done yet! There are still more recipes to try. I've been drooling over a recipe in the Silver Palate cookbook for soda bread with currants, and there's another one on epicurious with caraway seeds and another one with sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds! Probably not too Irish but worth a try.

*I just did a flour inventory. I have unbleached white flour, unbleached white bread flour, graham flour, whole wheat pastry flour, white whole wheat pastry flour, and wheat bran. And that's just the wheat flours. I also have masa harina, cornmeal, polenta, and almond meal. Gotta use it up before it goes stale.