Monday, March 30, 2009

Slumber Party

How to host a slumber party for the girls when the boys go to a cabin in the woods:

1) Make reservations at a good, sexy restaurant downtown.
2) After dinner, come back to the house and give party favors: little bottles of flavored booze, funny pins, sparklers.

3) Change into comfy clothes and cuddle up on the couch and velvet chairs with the pets and tell stories until 3am.

4) Crash.
5) Get up in the morning and put the breakfast you put together the day before in the oven. You'll have cardamom rolls and baked eggs with greens, feta, and fennelseed. Drink little lattes and grapefruit mimosas. It will all taste delicious.
6) Go for a hike and wander in the nearby woods for hours and hours.

7) Finally disperse around 3pm, everyone going to their own homes for a satisfied nap.
8) Look forward to the next time.

Make-Ahead Egg Bake with Greens

I tinkered greatly with this recipe from Sunset.

You will need:
1 tablespoon butter plus extra for greasing the pan
A large bunch of mixed greens (I used chard, Tuscan kale, and arugula because that is what my garden gave me), cleaned and cut into 1/2" ribbons
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon fennelseed
1 cup crumbled feta
1 dozen eggs
1/4 cup cream
generous pinch of fennel pollen
freshly ground pepper
a handful of grated gruyere

To make the egg bake:

The day before you're making breakfast, toss the butter in a pan over medium heat, melt, and add the greens to saute until they're bright green and almost-tender. Stir in the garlic, red pepper, and fennelseed, then add a shake of salt. Cook for another 30 seconds or so.

Grease a 13"x9" baking pan then spread the greens across the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the feta evenly over the greens.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cream, eggs, a shake or so of salt, the fennel pollen, and a hearty grind or two of pepper. Carefully pour the mixture into the baking pan over the greens and feta. Sprinkle the gruyere over all, wrap carefully with foil or plastic, and place it in the refrigerator.

When you're ready to make breakfast, heat the oven to 350, and once the oven reaches temperature, remove the cover of the eggs and place them in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the cheese is beginning to brown.

Serves 4-6 with sweet rolls, good coffee, and even better conversation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Color Me Home

Nearly every type of weather we've received in our new house so far has led me to turn to ECG and say, "I love living here."

Today, we have had bitterly cold wind and fast-passing angry spits of rain. The wind made the cold even colder: it was cuddle-necessary cold.

In between the splutters, the sun shone so brightly it was hard to believe that it wasn't warm. This early afternoon, when the sun shone the brightest, ECG asked me what I wanted to do today. I suggested a walk, this time not up the canyon and into the mountain, but instead, just across the street and down into the wash.

It was a very good idea.

We've lived here since September. Since September, and still, we had not yet walked simply across the street and down the footpath into the sandy floodplains. When I think about why we haven't done this, I guess it's simply because we've so busy with our home, we've forgotten to give attention to our neighborhood. As ECG has been building furniture and I've been building vegetable garden beds, neither of us have taken much time to appreciate that which is not far beyond our property walls.

The Arroyo Seco gallops out the canyon and down into the flat plain, where hopefully it slows to a lope before hitting the Devil's Gate Dam. The dam, so-named because of the Satan-faced rocks that used to frame the narrow passageway before its construction, is a pre-WPA piece of solid, fascinating concrete construction. (Someday, I'll spend a whole post on the dam; it's worthy of more than a side-note.) The wash the Arroyo Seco leaves in its wake is wide and undulating, scattered with native trees and volunteer eucalyptus.

Parts of the floodplains are vaguely developed, spotted with dredged areas for water control, the remnants of an old playing field and volleyball court, towers of rock piled by folks who wanted to leave a mark. But for the most part, it feels peaceful, empty, and connected to the deep-deep past. Today, we saw things we would have seen 1000 years ago: mountain lion tracks, a pair of ducks descending to a pool, hunting hawks, snakes.

This wash and other nearby wild areas inspire the directions I want to go with the our yard. The generations of folks who lived in this house before ECG and me clearly loved the house, but didn't necessarily embrace the essence of the place itself. Although—thank heavens—a mighty, mighty native oak still grows in the deep corner of the property, no other natives (other than unwanted weeds, many of which aren't native anyway, but instead invasive pests) exist on the property. I hope to begin incorporating the native plants into the landscape, continuing to remove more and more lawn, connecting this little ranchito of ours to the place from which it sprang.

If the natives happen to be edible, all the better. Today on our walk, ECG and I discovered a huge stand of elderberries and another of golden currants.

Finding both of these beautiful, native, food-producing plants has my kitchen brain whirring and spitting out idea after idea. I've already got a plan for some foraged elderflowers later this week and I'm brainstorming over the berries. Berries. Berries! And I didn't even have to grow them myself. Oh, I have so much to learn and discover.

All I needed to do was look past my walls and see a glimpse of what my neighborhood has to offer. I hope I remember to keep my eyes open wide enough to learn everything this corner of the planet has to teach me.

While I hope to learn from my surroundings, I also hope to learn from my online community. Our neighborhood unfortunately has an eyesore: our house. Neither ECG nor I like the color of our house, we assume our neighbors probably don't like the rancid mustard color either, and on top of that, our paint is peeling. We need a paint job in the next year or so. Although we've been talking about what color(s) we'd like our house to be since before we moved in, we just cannot come to a conclusion. Knowing that my readership is a creative bunch, ECG suggested we turned to you for help.

To allow that to happen, ECG created an online house-painting program using a photo of our house from before we moved in, Photoshop, lots of mad programming skills, and sheer ECG-genius. Follow this link, play around a bit, and submit a color-combination that you think flatters the house. We'll choose a few that we like then post them for a community vote-off.

Help us make our neighborhood even more beautiful.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When Life Gives You Peas

It's sugar snap time. The vines have grown over ten feet tall, and although the bottoms are suffering from smidgens of powdery mildew, they're pumping out peas at Henry Ford assembly-line pace. Sugar snap peas make me happy. They're delicious all sorts of ways: raw, lightly steamed, and tossed with other veggies in stir fries, but the way I love them best is just barely sauteed with olive oil and salt over very high heat until they're bright green with an occasional brown spot and are still sprightly and crunchy. Since it's sugar snap time, it's time I start designing meals around them. Peas are the star, a big pile of them nearly filling the plate, and whatever sits next to them on the plate needs to complement their green sweetness.

And this, this simple little risotto, is the perfect accompaniment, one that had ECG and me audibly yumming throughout dinner tonight. It's only a few ingredients, but each is essential, especially the fresh thyme. Do not leave out the thyme, as it will make every other ingredient even better.

Mixed Mushroom Risotto
Adapted from and Epicurious recipe I found here.

You will need:
3 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
1 pound assorted mushrooms (cremini, oyster, shitake, etc) roughly chopped into pieces of various sizes
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry vermouth
water as needed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

To make the risotto:
Heat the broth in a saucepan on the stove until it simmers.

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a very large pan over medium-high heat. Dump the onions into the hot fat and stir around a bit to completely coat the onion chunks. Add the mushrooms and a shake of salt to help draw out the water. Cook on medium-high to high heat until the mushrooms have golden edges and most of the juices are drawn out of the mushtrooms. This takes me about 10 minutes. Stir in the rice so it is coated with the scant remaining juices and oil in the pan.

Pour in the vermouth and stir to mix; stir every thirty seconds or a minute or so until the vermouth is absorbed by the rice. Add the broth about 3/4 cup a time, stirring frequently, until each addition of broth is absorbed by the rice and mushroom mixture. Once you've added all of the broth, the mixture should be very creamy and the rice should be tender, but not mushy. If the rice is not yet tender, add a splash of water at a time, stirring in and cooking down until absorbed. This should take about 20 minutes. Once the rice is just tender, remove the mixture from the heat, stir in the Parmesan and the thyme. Serve with extra grated Parmesan next to a huge pile of peas.

Serves two pea-loving folks amply.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Words and Gophers

I've been thinking about the words I use a lot lately. Someone said to me recently, "I found your blog and read right through it. Your style is so simple. It is so accessible." At first I thought that was a snide remark about oversimplicity, but I've decided it's a compliment as the person who told me that doesn't deal in snidery. That remark, highlighted by the lessons on precise and meaningful diction that I'm teaching right now in my AP English Language classes, has led to a few hours of stylistic reflection on my part.

(An aside that isn't really an aside: As an English teacher, the books that I teach and have taught are deeply tangled into the roots of my consciousness. Scout, Jem, and Atticus live in my head and heart almost as intimately as my family does. E.B. White's Elements of Style and Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," as this post clearly proves, guide my writing daily. As for Hamlet, scholarly critics be damned—the dude was crazy. In no stretch of morality or right-mindedness is Ophelia's love, sanity, and ultimately, life a reasonable sacrifice for revenge. Understanding his illness makes the story much more tragic to me. If I didn't think he was crazy, I'd think he was an ass, and if I thought he was an ass, I wouldn't care about him. Recognizing his pain is the heart of the story.)

Since the original goal of this blog was to maintain accountability while developing my writing skills, a necessary task for a writing teacher, the prose I create here is important to me. (Thankfully, this site has grown to do more than just allow me to practice writing, but has also given me a space to follow food from the seed to the soil to the table, reflecting on and sharing that process.) Upon rereading posts, I sometimes do see a style that is so simple it crumples into flatness and dissolves against the computer screen. But in occasional posts, I have found a rare turn of phrase, lively image, or idea of which to be proud. When I have come across those few moments where I'm practicing the lessons I teach to my students—specificity! strong verbs! purposeful syntax!—I find my favorite aspect of them to be the words that I chose.

While words paint pictures in my head, the natural world feeds me literally and emotionally, and often I have a hard time balancing my need to be outside or in the kitchen with my need to have my head in a book or my fingers on a keyboard. Someday, our oak tree will have a swing under it, and I will read pleasant afternoons away with the characters in my head and the sounds of the birds as company. You bet I'll someday blog from the oak tree. I'm already beginning to blog from the kitchen counter while I cook.

Unfortunately, sometimes words and nature come together in less pleasant ways, in ways I wish they wouldn't: gophers.

These damned gophers are pissing me off. Since I've dug so deep and lined each vegetable bed with hardware cloth, the veggie beds are safe, at least for now. When I planted the fruit trees I've put in so far, I've built large cages of hardware cloth to line the hole with before planting each. I've been hesitant to plant the fig trees though, because according to local lore, fig roots are gopher-crack, and I'm not sure they won't nibble their ways right into the death of my trees. Right now, I'm crossing my fingers in the hope that all my precautions will work on the food plants, but there's no precaution I know for grass. For years, I've argued that lawns are wasteful, that they drink more than their share, and that I don't want a large-lawn yard, but we purchased just that, and while we're whittling away at the lawn, shaving areas off for citrus and other edibles, part of the lawn remains. And that part of the lawn is bumpy. Really bumpy.

I can deal with the bumps and the mounds of fresh dirt by growling and shaking my fist, but if all my work put into protecting my fruit trees and vegetables ends in failure, I think a pellet gun may be in order.

And so, I aim wholeheartedly to use the words that show the work, that have dirt under their fingernails. I dig and shovel heavy soil to make room for a garden; I do not cultivate. If I come to make the decision that I do not want to make, that I hope I don't have to make, in order to save what I grow from the gophers, I will not exterminate them. I will kill them.

To use any word weaker than kill ignores the heart of the story.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bits of Tid

I have a cold, but even worse, ECG has pneumonia. Our house is a den of pestilence and infection right now. Don't worry, you can't catch diseases through the internet; I promise.

Rather than flesh out the post I've been working on sporadically through this illness, I'll instead post a few snippets that have captured my attention and imagination lately. Here goes.

1) Yes, we're in an economic crisis, but I think there is a business out there that needs starting and would be successful in many urban areas of the world: veggie garden consultancies. I've heard people toss this idea around quite a bit, some mention that they'd like to start businesses along these lines, but I haven't seen many actually happen. I know a lot of people who would pay to have food growing on their property or at least learn how to grow food on their property. Somebody out there, some entrepreneurial organic veggie-loving soul, please actually do this. I promise to write about it if you do. If you're already doing it, let me know how it is working for you.

2) There is proof that students listen to me about more than just English. College students are demanding and receiving farmers' markets on their campuses.

3) As I've written about before, seed saving is a necessity (albeit a beautiful, fascinating one) in our system of modern agriculture. Seed Ambassadors have created a free zine on the subject, one that is informative, beautiful, easy to use, and did I say it already?, free!

4) I want to give major props to Patrick and the team working to put together Altadena's future co-op. This will work. This will get off the ground. This will make real change in our community.

Bear with ECG and me as we recuperate. We will. And when we do, I'll finally be able to finish that post that has been bouncing around in my head for the last week or so. In the meantime, I hope I've shared some food for thought. I'd love to hear your responses.

Happy day, friends.