Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Right Tool for the Right Job

We are a country that loves kitchen gadgets.  Sometimes it's outright silly.  There are probably enough blogs out there face-palming about the banana slicer (Google it) so I don't need to get into that here.   

I've gone back and forth on gadgetry. Sometimes I insist that I can get the job done with some ingenuity, repurposing and elbow grease.   Sometimes I cave.

My journey into the world of pasta making probably captured the worst of all worlds.   I started out buying one of those kitchen-aid attachments which rolls out the pasta.  (BTW, did I mention that I hate my kitchen aid?) It was expensive as all get out, so I couldn't bring myself to also buy the slicer attachment -- thinking, I can cut pasta with a knife, or a pizza roller and it will be 'rustic.'    I also cheaped out in that I didn't buy a that hanging rack to hang pasta to dry (or rather, to keep it from sticking while rolling out more pasta.  'Oh, I can just spread the pasta out on cutting boards or plates, as an alternative.'   It's not all about cheapness, though, it was also about conserving space. 

Well, after 5-6 uses, that super expensive attachment never worked right again.  It would tear the sheets of pasta into something unusable.  I also got seduced into some fancy hand roller pasta slicer thing -- which never worked right -- though it's still taking up space in my drawer. Why??    The result is that I haven't bothered to make pasta in probably 3 years.  It also doesn't help that my kids are the only children in America that don't like pasta.  It seemed like a lot of effort to go through for just J. and I... and while I didn't have confidence in my equipment, it was too high risk of an endeavor to invite friends over to have pasta confetti. 

Despite my better judgement, however, I've decided to emerge from pasta purgatory.   While on vacation last week, I lamented the fact that our booming tomato crop was begging for a nice homemade pasta dish. 

Before I knew it, we were in one of our favorite stores.  I bought: 
  • the hand crank old fashion pasta maker with the slicing attachment.
  • the wooden hanging rack
  • a ravioli making tray
  • and basic rolling pin (which I needed anyway).
Yup. quite a bender.   But it inspired a great dinner tonight.  I made a tomato sauce with our 
  • tomatoes 
  • onion
  • garlic
  • basil
  • oregano
  • chicken stock.  
Supplemented with a ground beef, sausage, can of tomato paste, parmesan, salt and pepper.  I started the pasta dough in a food processor.  Then you are supposed to let it rest for 30 minutes (at which point I threw together the sauce).  And then I let the sauce simmer while I was rolling out the noodles.  Next time, I may roll them out a little thinner, but they were really lovely.  Using the right tools made it possible to throw together this dinner in about an hour.  With practice, I could probably shave some time off of that.  

Another example of right tool for the job:  I bought a gallon sized apothecary jar to ferment cucumbers.   I've never done this process before, and I get the sense that the larger the jar the easier it is.  I'll keep my eye out for larger crocks for future years.  It may not look appetizing yet, but when I open the jar it smells like pickled goodness!  And fermented foods are supposed to have lots of great probiotic what-nots in them.  Another bonus is that this late into the season, I have so many pickles and cucumbers already that I don't mind waiting the month or two till these are ready for prime time.  This is what they look like about a week in.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Donating Food

I've been wanting to do this for ages.

Every gardener knows the joy and burden of a bumper crop.  First it's all joy.  "I can't wait to eat those!"  "Wow these are gorgeous!" "Let's Share with family and friends!" "Let's preserve some for a future time and bottle up summer!" Then, at some point, it turns on you.  Friends and family start eye rolling when you offer them more from the garden.  Joggers start running on the other side of the street to avoid being chucked with a cucumber.  It gets bad.

But the plant is still producing, and in the back of my head I keep thinking about all the people who don't have access to fresh food and desperately need it.  Meanwhile, I'm 'burdened' with food.

To be honest, as much as I have wanted to pass on produce to those who need it, I've never made it happen before.  Part of my inertia was that I didn't know where to take it.   Some people give it to churches.  However, for my own reasons, I wanted to support a secular organization, but most don't take perishable food. Finally I found one that does.  (

Once I made contact with the organization, I was so excited to pick the day's crops.   We brought 17 cucumbers, a gallon bag of green beans, a zucchini and some tomatoes. I was also excited to incorporate Max into the process of making the donation.  We had a great talk about what it means to be hungry and not have access to good, healthy food, especially when one is sick.  

The folks at the center were so sweet and friendly and appreciative.  The center was gorgeous, clean, with crates of pristine looking fruits and vegetables.

It was a really great experience for both of us and I will now look forward to going there for seasons to come to share our (comparatively tiny) harvest with our community.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Project Frenzy

Disclaimer.  This post is beyond obnoxious. It is not a reflection of what every day looks like.  It's not a statement that anyone else should do all or any of these things.  But doing these stupid things make me happy, and often I get asked how I find the time.  The long days of summer are a big help -- here's how today went.

1:15 a.m.,  I go to bed after attending a long Giants game in San Francisco last night.

6:45: I'm awake and bitter

7:20: We pick up the kids who had stayed the night at my parents' to allow J. and I to have the aforementioned Giants game date night.

8:05: Family Picks berries at U-pick Webb Ranch.   We went a mere 10 days ago, but we ate so much of our supply fresh, that we didn't have enough berries for other projects that I enjoy, like blackberry BBQ sauce and homemade ice cream. 

9:30-:11 - Nap #1  (So, J. and I have this inside joke.  My parents went on a vacation and were reporting back to us how many naps they got to have each day.  So, on days when we're especially tired, we joke about needing nap #1)

11:00: Make green salad for pot luck (our cucumbers, tomato, onions, herby salad dressing). 

11:25: Marinate feta in olive oil & herbs -- with feta block leftover from making the salad.  Toss sliced onions into leftover pickle brine as a component for dinner.

11:30: shower

12:00-2:00 potluck picnic with local democratic club.  

3:00 - 5:00- Nap #2.  Yup. Totally needed it.  

These purple peppers are amazingly gorgeous! And Stella is on nap #12
5:00: Save seeds from arugula.  This to-do item has been bugging me for 2 weeks.  We cut back all of our arugula that had gone to seed and dried it in the back yard.  Like with every new project, you start doing things the long hard way and then you figure out the short cuts.  I started by breaking each pod individually and sprinkling the seeds into a bowl -- a long but meditative process.  Later I shifted to grabbing large handfuls of the plants and rubbing them together over a large bucket.  Gathered tons of seeds this way, and it was ultimately much more satisfying.  

6:00: Craft project with kids.  Had them make drawing/label for seeds.  

7:00: Crap. People in this house probably want to eat something....  Pick sun-gold cherry tomatoes for Max and Ginger.   Make a ground beef on bread with homemade pickles as topping for Max.  Ginger eats the tomatoes with leftover tequila lime chicken (made by J. earlier in the week).  I pick tomatoes, purple peppers, fresno chile, and grab onion from earlier today.  Toss tomato, onion, green onion, olive onion, leftover pickle brine into magic bullet, to make a quick salsa.  Chop up onion, purple peppers and sauté.  Throw in a pound of ground beef.  Assemble soft tacos with meat/veggie mixture, pickled onions, salsa and jack cheese.  Everybody eats.

Celery seeds.  There's more seed buds on
the plants that will be ready in a week or two

8:15 - Save seeds from celery plant.  It smells like bloody mary on my hands! mmm.

8:30 - Scoop up tomato seeds from beautiful heirloom that I used for Salsa, start fermentation process.

8:30-9:10 bed time routine with Ginger.

9:10 - browse recipes for berries from earlier today.  

9:30 - start boysenberry ice cream.  Base made, will chill overnight before churning tomorrow.  Can't start blackberry BBQ sauce because I didn't have chicken stock defrosted.  Project for tomorrow morning.

So, like I said, is this normal? Hell no.   Are all these things critically necessary?  Nope.  Can virtually every deliverable represented on this list been obtainable by a 30 minute trip to a grocery store?  Yes.

I can't explain it, but I feel drawn to doing this stuff anyway.  It could be that it's because I have a stressful job and this is one way to decompress.  It could be that I'm gearing up for a life when I have less to do and that these projects will be how I leisurely pass the time when that day comes.   Or, it could be that there are little joys here that can't be created in any way other than primitively having these experiences.  Would I savor the smell of a celery seed if I bought it in a seed packet or as a spice jar?  Would I excitedly share seeds with friends if they were not ones that I had harvested myself? Would I cram as many vegetables into a meal if I didn't have them in my backyard, begging to be used?  All of these small steps bring a measure of satisfaction, and I am open to receive it. 
I'm normally lazy on my ice cream recipes, but this time I'm making the full custard.
Boysenberry ice cream

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Getting to know your food: Mustard Edition

A Jamie Oliver food revolution clip has been making the rounds.   It features a classroom of first graders unable to correctly identify a single vegetable.  We're not talking sunchokes and rutabagas here; we're talking common, everyday vegetables.  Tomatoes, cauliflower, potatoes!  It's heartbreaking, because one can only conclude that these kids only eat super processed foods, and have serious health challenges ahead of them.  Also obvious is that these kids have likely had no exposure to the beauty of seeing food grow on a plant.

It's easy to sit up here in my first-world perch and tsk, tsk, tsk about how sad it is for them.  But then I realize how I am not that far behind them in terms of real connection to my food.  I've never milked a cow, or hunted or butchered my own meat for food.  I've never harvested wheat to make flour in order to make my daily bread.  These are things that anyone living 100 - 200 years ago was accustomed to doing just to stay alive.   Yes,  I have a kick ass garden, but it's really a token, compared to what it means to truly be connected to your food in a primal way.

I was humbled by one experience this week.   Mustard.  How often do you think about it in terms of food-origin?  I never really thought about the process of making mustard.  It's as if it magically appears in its Frenchy yellow, dijon, spicy stoneground mustard form.   Just there, on the shelf, in a jar or a squeeze bottle.   I recently read somewhere that it's really easy to make mustard.   So, I footnoted it in my mind as a project to take up.

I tracked down this recipe.  I used my Magic bullet (a far cry from 'stone ground') to grind the mustard seeds.  I only gave it a few pulses because I wanted to have that grainy mustard look.  I probably could have let it go in the bullet a little longer, but I'll get that to later.  I used some Pacifico beer instead of water, and honey that I got from the Googleplex beehive.   After 12 hours, the mustard looked a little liquidy.  That could be the result of a couple of factors, namely 1) I probably skimped on the dry mustard powder and 2) not grinding the seeds enough.  So, I popped the mixture, minus a tablespoon or so (for grainy-ness), back into the bullet and blended it up some more.  That did the trick.  It was a lovely texture with a real zing of a bite.  We ate it on 4th of July with bacon wrapped hot dogs, and the next morning with a few varietals of deli ham, and it really shined.

But even this exercise leaves me with some mystery steps on how food gets to my table.  I have seen mustard plants on the side of the highway... but never stopped to really examine them.  I have no idea what it looks like when it goes to seed, or what it takes to harvest mustard seeds.  Or how many plants it actually takes to yield the 6 tablespoons of mustard seeds I needed for my recipe (not counting the pre-ground mustard).  I'd love to have an excuse to hunt down the answers to those questions.

Going through this process made me savor each bite of that mustard in a way that I just don't when I crack open a jar from the store -- artisanal or not.  J. is a big consumer of mustard, so I know I'll be making this again, perhaps in bigger quantities, and maybe even will jar them up. Is it cheaper?  Probably not.  Is it more fun? Undoubtedly so.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Garden Update July 2015

This happens every year.  I take a lot of pictures of the garden early in the season.  At that point, it's all about hope, progress and anticipation.   Then, we may get a few pictures in of the first of the crop.  This stage is all about vindication and success.  The phase that I rarely document in blogs is the point in the season when we are so over-whelmed with produce that we can barely make it out to the garden to pick what's ripe, much less photograph what's going on.  This stage is all about shame, regret and self doubt.  There are starving kids in Africa and what am I going to do with all these cucumbers!!!

Well, I'm picking about 2-3 lbs of green beans a day, and 13 cucumbers every 2 days, give or take, but I want to make an actual effort to document the rest of the garden, so here we go.

1 of 2 walls of green beans.  So. Many. Green beans.  
Wall 2 of green beans, and melons.  I also have let some dill and cilantro flower so that I can save the seeds.  There's a few volunteers potatoes in there, too.
These are sweet peppers.  We don't have many that have ripened yet,
but we've been using the green ones in fajitas and gazpacho.
Check out these little melons!
I'm also saving celery seeds!  They are the little brow specks!
Remember when I saved radish seeds?  2 whopping radishes have sprouted from the batch.
The little dude, snacking on sun gold cherry tomatoes after swim lessons.

The 2 pumpkin plants are unimpressive so far.   Bummer because I left them so much space to have a wild pumpkin patch.

Oranges coming along.

Stunted zucchini plants, because I'm the only gardner who can't grow these very well. 
So, 4 tomatillo plants in the background and they are looking kind of weak compared with last year.  Meanwhile...

... dynamite volunteer tomatillo plant which cropped up amongst a bunch of garbage.  The gardening gods are funny.

Sunflower taller than our house.

Grapes coming along nicely.

Fueling our mojito habit with this mint.

The cucumber jungle overtakes all.
The basil is largely a casualty in the cucumber jungle, but this one variety is doing ok.

I'm pretty happy with the tomatoes so far!  Some giant ones back there.

This eggplant has only one destiny. Baba ghanouj.

Best looking onions I have ever grown.

The carrots are suffering in this heat.  I've let the lettuce go to flower so the bees have some food.

And, peeking inside the bee hive, this is what we can see from the top.  It smells amazing!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Hot Jam, Summer in the City

Last year I made Jalapeno Jelly and I truly dug it.  I enjoyed eating it with homemade goat cheese.  I was pretty skeptical that I would like it because I'm not that into spicy things.  So, I made a small patch that netted 2.5 8 oz jars.  I gave 1 full jar to my folks, one to the in-laws and was sure that 1/2 of a jar would be plenty for my consumption.  Once I tried the jam, I knew I totally miscalculated.  I enjoyed every last drop of my jam and vowed to make more next time around.

Flash forward to next year, and we planted like 8 hot pepper plants.  2 padron peppers.  2 jalapenos, 1 serrano, 1 fresno chili, and I can't remember what the other two were and I've since lost the signs.  I figured I would likely also do atkins again this year and there's nothing like jalapenos, cream cheese and bacon as a diet staple food, right?

Earlier in the week I selected 4-5 peppers, plus one bell pepper for the purpose of making jam.  But every night I was too exhausted and the weather was just too hot to heat up a kitchen with all the canning falderal.

However, tonight was the night.  I still made a small recipe because of the relatively small yield I have ripe... but this time I might not share.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Paradox of Community Gardens

When I was living in an apartment with no balcony or outside space to grow anything, I would have jumped at the chance to take on a community garden plot.   I've always been a fan of them.   They provide space to the spaceless, and they break up the suburban/urban landscape with interesting plants to look at.  They are teeming with life.  What's not to love?  I never gave much thought to the "community" aspect of it, though.  And after an experience today, I really wonder whether they do, in fact, breed a sense of community.

I'm thankful that my employer organizes volunteer events.  I managed to snag a spot to volunteer at a community garden about a mile from my house.  It's been around about 10 years and I've visited it a few times for special events like seedlings sales.  In addition to the chance to participate in back breaking labor, we also got an hour long tour of the grounds, detailed descriptions of the various plants being grown and loads of gardening tips.  All of this was great.  But of course, leave it to me to dwell on the one negative thing that was said.

Turns out that a big problem in the garden is rampant theft.   Theft of supplies (tools, wheelbarrows, etc.) and theft of entire crops the people spent months growing.  I can't even imagine how demoralizing that must be for those who spent so much time on those plots.  I also cringe thinking about the situation of the people desperate (or mean?) enough to take someone's entire crop.

Now, I grow plenty of produce in the front yard.  I have noticed a missing tomato or melon now and then, but never had anyone go so far as to clean me out just because it's there.   Perhaps there's more of a fear of being caught trespassing on personal property.  Or maybe there's a fundamental misunderstanding re: what the gardens are there for -- there is a total lack of signs explaining what is going on or what the expectation is.

So, does that garden feel like a "community"?  Or does each gardener eye any passerby with suspicion?  Does that suck all the joy out of gardening?  I know there's got to be economies of scale in community gardens, so I'd really love to see them as a healthy ecosystem.  But I don't have any great ideas without turning them into a police state.  Sigh.  I would, however, like to see city governments get more involved in promoting & expanding the use of such gardens to feed the hungry (or malnourished in the case of food desserts...).

I know this is a luxury of the fortunate to be able to grow food on their own land.  And I treasure it every time I walk into my garden.  For me, I have made an effort to garden with a sense of community.  I love that people stop and look at my plants as they walk down the street, sometimes offering a kind word of encouragement.  I love that I have traded crops with families down the street when we each have an excess of something.  I love that when my friends or family have an excess of a crop, they give me some to enjoy, or I repurpose or preserve it and give it back to them.  For instance, tonight I was the lucky recipient of a bushel of carrots and onions.  We ate some fresh with dinner.  But then I pickled a bunch too and will give most of those pickles back to the original owner -- helping them enjoy their harvest after they had thought they got the last bit of joy out of it.

While it's a lot of fun to share the bounty this way, it would be even more fun if some of my friends got into this whole canning/preserving hobby so we can do it together.  Seriously, people, I'm running out of jars. :)

Milestone: everything on this cutting board was home grown either by me or my friend!