Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ashen and Shaken

Thursday, August 27th, the little fire that started Wednesday night blew up.

Here, you can see JPL in the foreground as fire burns near the top of the far ridge. A valley, a neighborhood, and another ridge lay between the fire and JPL.

Thursday night, as the far ridge burned bright across the canyon, I began to pace and grind my teeth, but ECG comforted me, reminding me that between us and the fire JPL lay, a treasure the US government would not let burn.

That night, we talked about the possibility of evacuation, and though the possibility seemed far away, I still went out to the garage to get the cat carrier. I wanted it nearby and ready if we needed it fast. We made a list of what we'd bring if we had to leave. The list was remarkably short: the central computer and the backup drive, ECG's negatives, our important papers, the cats and hopefully, if possible, the chickens, clean underwear.

Friday, August 28th, the fire broke all containment and grew in every direction.

I left for work that morning with a choke of fear; however unlikely it seemed, evacuation was a possibility. I gave my cats extra hugs and petting, I walked through each room in the house, I kneeled low to the chicken coop and clucked at the birds, I dragged my feet through the garden. I really didn't want to leave the house for work when I may have to later leave the house for real.

When I came home that afternoon, I turned into an Internet junkie. I'd flip from the Pasadena Star homepage to the La Canada municipal page to the LA Times local page to the best, most informative site of all, Altadena Blog. Then, I'd flip through them all again. Finding reliable, up-to-date news was far harder than it should have been. Then, I'd walk outside and watch the air assault on the fire from my front yard. When I worked myself into a frenzy of fear, I'd go inside again and flip through all the websites once again.

Nieghborhoods in La Canada received voluntary evacuation requests.

Saturday, all hell broke loose.

La Canada's voluntary evacuations became mandatory. Then came the voluntary Altadena evacuations just to the north of us.

And all morning long, I wondered, where are the planes? Finally, a half-day later than they should have been there, the DC10 and other air crews arrived, close to 1:30pm.

And, suddenly, Altadena's evacuations were no longer voluntary. If you lived in an evacuated neighborhood and you left, you were not allowed back in, not even to try to round up animals that you were unable to find when you had to leave. Packed cars from just north of me fought against the gawkers on my street to leave their homes.

Wonderful people called me to tell me that they could take in the chickens, or they would happily house the cats. People called to tell us that they had an extra bed if we needed it.

An understandably frantic fellow member of the Altadena produce exchange emailed us all. She had a horse, three dogs, fourteen chickens, and two cats, and she needed places for them, fast. Almost immediately, the community had found homes for her animals and also offered cheer and humor. The horse trainer at the barn where I ride drove by my house towing the big trailer, full of horses. As the talented Karin over at Altadena Hiker reported, all 30 of the horses were out in under two hours. People rallied each other on our local websites and discussion boards. This town is something special, and I'm so happy to have a community that watches each others' back so completely, cheerfully, and generously.

The stronghold that ECG and I had been relying on, JPL and its adjacent neighbhorhoods on both sides of the canyon, came under fiery attack Saturday afternoon. The firefighters pulled out all stops. The hot sky was heavy with smoke and noise as a constant thudity-thudity-thudity of helicopter and scream of bombers hit the JPL ridges hard.

Fire crew after fire crew headed up our road. Evacuees headed down. Sightseers stood around.

ECG, who had been a calm force through all of this, finally seemed to be a little shaken.

Thankfully, friends bearing popsicles and moral support fought their way up the crowded road to our house. We ran through our evacuation plan with them, and one said, "No, there's something else you need to add to your evacuation list, if you have to go."

"What?" I asked.

"Your seeds. You'd regret it if you didn't have them."

Good point.

The firefighters' heroic efforts saved the Starlight Crest, Meadows, and Millard Canyon neighborhoods and kept JPL undamaged.

The fire roared up the mountain and east.

Sunday morning, smoke lay thick and smothering over Altadena, but Altadena, thank God, was still there.


Incredible gratitude goes to our firefighters who are braving over 100 degree weather, fierce slopes, over 40 years of fiery fuel, way too many curious onlookers, and heart-stopping multi-story flames. Thank you for your heroic efforts. Thank you also to local journalism of the unpaid but INVALUABLE kind at Altadena Blog, Altadena Hiker, and others.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Tiniest Violin

So it is the peak of summer and farmers' markets, backyards, and roadside farms are laden with fruit. Fruit everywhere. Vegetables everywhere. Recently, at the Santa Monica's farmers' market, a friend purchased more goodies than he'll ever be able to eat in a week just because everything is available right now, and it all tastes so good. We're buying with our tastebuds right now. Isn't it wonderful?

I should be thrilled, but I'm in my last week of summer vacation and doing everything I can to keep from getting blue about the end. I got a haircut, a henna tattoo, some new shoes. I've been running every day to force endorphins upon myself.

But it's tough work hanging on to freedom when the end of it is inevitable.

I know. It is ridiculous for me to complain when I have months off at a time to do whatever the heck I want, and most everyone else has two weeks and that's it.

Try looking at it from my perspective though: Today, in the first hour I was outside, I saw the tiniest lizard I've ever seen. I saw a blue jay catch a bottle-green cicada and eat it loudly on the fence, a clicking, squawking flash of blue, black, and very, very green. I saw a turquoise dragonfly lazily make its way around the yard, a swallowtail in the purple buddliea, and bees swarm the neighbors' red eucalyptus. When one becomes accustomed to this much beauty regularly served up with a side of sunshine, it's particularly hard to go on a fast.

Poop. Summer ends. Darn it.

Summer ending or not, the fruit and vegetables and huge harvests from my yard and others' are here, and I've got to figure out what to do with everything that's coming at me. So I better stop complaining, buck up, and enjoy what I've got, because what I've got is damn good.


Recently, a member of COFEA posted that she had figs that she wanted to swap for veggies. After an email exchange, we agreed to yellow tomatoes for figs. I brought her six lovely Not Weses and she gave me four pounds of very ripe purple figs. Four pounds!

I came home from the trade, ate the two delicious figs that were on my little tree, then made jam with the recently acquired bounty.

Rummy Fig Jam
I had no cognac at home so I substituted rum after I found this simple, quirky recipe on Epicurious. It's good on toast, great stirred into yogurt, and delicious slathered into hand-tarts.

You will need:
2 lemons (these MUST be organic, as you will be using the peel!)
4 pounds of black figs, rinsed and quartered
4 cups sugar
3/4 cup golden rum (or 1/2 cup light and 1/4 dark)
1/2 teaspoon salt

To make the jam:
With a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, peel off only the yellow portion of the lemons into strips. Stack the strips, then chop them into fine matchsticks.

In a large, heavy pot, stir together the lemon peel, the juice from one of the lemons, the figs, the sugar, rum, and salt. Let sit for one hour while the fruit macerates.

Over medium-high heat, bring the fruit mixture to a boil. Boil for 35 minutes, or until the mixture is thickened significantly. If you drop a dollop of it on a cold plate and run your finger through it, the two sides of the finger trail should not merge, but instead stay suspended like the jammy-sugary-almost-caramelly goodness they are.

Following the directions of your hot water canner or pressure cooker, can the jam into six half-pint jars. Or, you can be lazy like me this time, and pour the jam into the six half-pint jars, let cool and label, then freeze.


Peaches, Nectarines, Plums: they're everywhere and they're at their sugary, nectar-y peak right now. Pies and tarts are great, but the fruits are also fantastic sliced and served over homemade ice cream. Here are the two ice creams that serve as great foils for fruit, and right now, are making ECG and me almost forget that I have to go back to work next week.

Honey Vanilla Ice Cream
Slightly adapted to the way I cook from Patricia Well's The Paris Cookbook. This is a simple, creamy, fantabulous way to showcase local honey. A scoop of this with a superripe plum is August in a cup.

You will need:
Two vanilla beans
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup local honey

To make the ice cream:
Flatten the beans, slice them open, and scrape out their gooey seeds. Use your knife to scrape the seeds into a large saucepan and drop in the bean pods too. Add the cream, milk, and honey. Turn the heat to medium and stir the combination to dissolve the honey into the mixture. Heat just until the mixture is beginning to think about simmering, then remove the pot from the heat. Cover the pot and let cool to room temperature, then place the pot in the refrigerator and chill overnight.

The next day, remove the vanilla pods from the mixture, squeezing out whatever goodness they still have in them back into the pot, and toss the pods into your compost bin. Stir the mixture to make sure it is thoroughly combined (if the vanilla seeds have clumped together, don't worry because they'll break up in the ice cream maker), and pour the mixture into your ice cream maker, following the manufacturer's directions from there.

This makes three-quarters of a quart of ice cream.


Ginger Ice Cream
Adapted with an addition of candied ginger from David Liebovitz's The Perfect Scoop. More elegant than the previous recipe, this is only for ginger lovers. My friends who've tasted this who love ginger love this. Those who don't don't. I'm in the first camp.

You will need:
A 3 ounce knob of fresh ginger, peel still attached
1 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
5 large egg yolks
1/4 candied ginger pieces

To make the ice cream:
Place the candied ginger pieces in the freezer to firm up, making them easier to chop later. Place a large bowl in the refrigerator to chill.

Slice the ginger, peel and all, into thin slices. In order to keep the ginger flavor from being incredibly overwhelming, place the slices in a medium saucepan, add enough water to cover it by 1/2 inch, and bring to a boil. Boil for two minutes, then drain, discarding the liquid.

Return the ginger slices to the pan, add the milk, one cup of the cream, sugar, and salt. Warm the mixture, stirring, and just before a simmer, remove the mixture from he heat. Let the combination steep at room temperature for an hour.

Rewarm the mixture. Remove and discard the ginger slices. Pour the remaining cup of cream into the large chilled bowl and set a mesh strainer over the bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the ginger-infused mixture into the egg yolks, then scrape the combination of the cream mixture and the egg yolks back in the pan. (This step, though seemingly "extra," helps keep the eggs from cooking too quickly.)

Over medium heat, stir the mixture constantly with a silicon or wooden spatula, scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching, until the mixture thickens. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream in the chilled bowl, the coolness of which will stop the cooking.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator overnight, or at least for three hours, then freeze it according to the instructions of your ice cream maker's manufacturer.

While the ice cream is freezing, remove the crystalized ginger from the refrigerator and chop it roughly. It will be hard, but the firmness of it will help keep it from sticking together. In the last two minutes or so of the ice cream maker's run, scoop the crystalized ginger into the mixture. The blades should mix the ginger pieces evenly through the ice cream.

This makes approximately one quart of ice cream.


I just received an email from my blog friend Laura at Mas du Diable. The Armenian Cucumber seeds I sent her have grown and have given her almost more than her household could consume. She asked what I do with them. Since I discovered this recipe at the end of last summer, I make it all the time. If you put a bowl of these guys in front of me, I won't stop eating them. So Laura and whoever else is suffering an cucumber overload, here you go, my favorite way to get rid of cucumbers quickly.

Smashed CukesAdapted from this recipe from Saveur to the cucumbers I have on hand. The salad is summery and brightly flavored, and a great counterpoint to all sorts of grilled meats. The quartet of sugar, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil do amazing things together. Try it.

You will need:
1 large Armenian cucumber or 4 kirby cucumbers
sea salt
1 inch knob of ginger
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 roughly chopped garlic cloves

To make the salad:
Cut the cucumbers into irregular chunks about 2" long and 1/4" thick. Dump the cucumbers in a bowl and toss together with 2 teaspoons of salt. Set the cucumbers aside for an hour while the salt removes excess water from the chunks.

Meanwhile, julienne the ginger into short, fine matchsticks. Place in a medium bowl and set aside.

After an hour, drain the cucumber chunks. Using your hands, grab a few pieces at a time and squeeze out more liquids. Once you've squeezed the pieces in your hand, drop them in the bowl with the ginger. Continue until you've squeezed juices out of all of your cucumber chunks.

Toss the sugar, vinegar, oil, and garlic into the same bowl, and stir to combine. Taste to see if the mixture needs more salt (in my experience, it never does). Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 15 minutes while the flavors meld, then serve.

Depending on how much you like cucumbers and what else you're serving, this can serve 2 to 4 people.


Yeah, it is all good stuff, I know. But right now, I've got a heck of a psychosomatic-school-starts-next-week sore throat and head ache. Whine, whine, whine.

Get over it, Christina.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Zucchini Chronicles #3: Chocolate and Zucchini Cake

Harriet the chicken is in the hospital right now. I felt heartless this morning as I did a silent calculation of what I would be willing to spend at the vet to help her get better. What's a chicken worth? The cost of a fryer in the supermarket? I've spent a lot more than that already on these three girls. The cost of a year's worth of eggs? Well, taking Harriet to the vet blows that budget out of the water too.

But I know Harriet, I've seen her silly antics in the coop with her coopmates, and I've enjoyed the bob of her little white head as she dances for the chard we bring her. Also, I chose to keep chickens without having the savvy of an experienced farmer. While I've read the books, when an illness like Harriet's presents itself to me, I can identify symptoms but I just don't have the confidence to treat them myself, and that is in no way the poor bird's fault. I took the responsibility of her when I brought her home. So, she's worth more than eggs. She's worth a fair chunk of change, I figured as I took her to the doctor.

At the doctor, I haggled. He suggested an xray. I said she's a chicken. He suggested other very expensive procedures. I said, "She's a chicken. A chicken." I had to keep telling that to myself too. In the end, we came to an agreement on what I was and was not willing to pay. I hope the oxygen treatment (which she clearly desperately needed) and the antibiotics help. If not, I'm getting close to that spending limit I set, and then the really tough decision has to happen.

In the meantime, think about her fondly. If you pray, she could use your prayers: she was one unhappy chicken this morning. If not, wish her well. Or, make her a cake.

Gateau Chocolat et Courgette aka Chocolate and Zucchini Cake

This is straight from Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen by the funny and incredibly appealing Clothilde Dusoulier. The cake is remarkably un-zucchiniesque and actually quite elegant: rich, moist, and very special topped with slightly sweetened, softly whipped cream.

You will need:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 cupts all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flax meal (optional: I added it for more Omega 3s)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
3 large eggs
2 cups unpeeled grated zucchini
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a 10 inch springform pan.

Whisk the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and flax meal in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat together the sugar and butter until creamy, then add the vanilla, coffee, and eggs, one at a time, beating well between each.

Reserve a cup of the flour mixture, and mix the rest into the egg mixture until just combined.

To absorb excess moisture and to allow the zucchini to mix evenly into the rest of the batter, toss the zucchini and chocolate chips with the remainder of the flour mixture. Stir the zucchini mixture gently into the chocolate batter until just combined. Scoop the mixture into the springform pan and use a spatula to smooth the surface of the batter.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the center springs back when touched. Place the pan on a rack to cool for 10 minutes, loosen the pan with a knife, and release the springform.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar, or top with cream cheese frosting, ganache, or my favorite, softly whipped cream. Serves 12 easily.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Zucchini Chronicles #2: Summer Risotto

Part of summer and fall in Southern California means brush fires. Our landscape is dotted with crouching lions of golden hills and shady, cool canyons. Unfortunately, the coolness of the canyons can't keep the lions in check, and this time of year they begin to leap up into orange and black stains against the sky. On Tuesday afternoon, a brush fire broke out near where the 2 and the 134 intersect, and though this is a few miles from where I live, within an hour, I couldn't see the bluff on the other side of the Arroyo Seco, the canyon on which I live. Within another hour, the smoke had dissipated, but I could still taste it in the air.

I had a meeting at 7 that night; it didn't last long, and I returned home to fix myself a meal of satisfying leftovers. The house was my own, as ECG was on his way home from a conference in San Diego. It was quiet.

A fire engine roared up the street, interrupting the crickets and night birds, and stopped in front of my next door neighbor's house. The engine, growling, impatient, sat in front of their yard, and I stepped out front to see what was going on. Just as I did so, the engine roared, and reversed itself awkwardly to go around the corner. Nothing seemed to be happening next door, so I went back inside, only to see flames through my back windows.

Flames! Smoke! I ran outside again, this time in my back yard, and was struck my thick smoke and the fierce glow of my back neighbor's house on fire.

The first few minutes of realizing my neighbor's house was on fire, and a big fire, not just a spot fire, were messy and stumbly. I ran around turning water on. I grabbed a hose to try to douse the back end of the property, but in the dark, tripped over garden tools sloppy me had left out. I tangled and untangled myself in the wire edging of the veggie beds. Finally, I made it to the back of the property to spray everything down in the corner adjacent to the fire. Firemen on the other side of the wall apparently had the same plan, and I as I stood there spraying, a huge arc of water came over the wall, drenching me and that area of the property. So much for my little garden hose.

Once everything was wet, I went back inside to get my camera. This is what I saw.

Another neighbor, the one who had called 911, was out back too, and he told me that he had run over to the house when he had seen the fire to knock on the door and alert whomever was inside, but no one was there. No one was hurt in this fire, but the house—a home to a family with children—and most of its contents were destroyed.

ECG got home after the house had become smoky charcoal. We fell asleep that night to the smell of smoke and the sound of firemen's chainsaws cutting the embers apart.

I don't know the neighbors that lived in that house, but I've heard them a lot. I've heard their music, their kid-birthday parties (complete with jumpers and lots of happy screaming), the low commands to an obedient dog, the sounds of tinkering on car engines. I've never seen their faces; the back fence has been effective. I don't know where they are now that their home is a wreck, and I don't know how to tell them that I'm so sorry about their home. Unlike the brush fires that happen this time of year that end up splattered all over the news, their catastrophe didn't hit Channel 4. There was no newscopter flat-flat-flatting above. Their huge headline was no one else's.

The next day was peaceful. Either we had become so accustomed to the smell of smoke that we could no longer smell it, or, it had flitted all away and into the atmosphere. Smalls laid her first egg.

The day after our neighbors lost their house, we celebrated Smalls' first egg with a special meal. Isn't life like this? So many big catastrophes followed by small victories. Thank God we're an optimistic species.

Summer Risotto with Garden Vegetables, Bacon, and Good Eggs
Inspired by, but greatly straying from, Jamie West's apple-wood-smoked bacon and farm-fresh egg risotto.

I liked using yellow tomatoes here because they hide in the rice so that no one is aware of eating tomatoes, but they add a surprising summer brightness to the dish. The zucchini becomes little nuggets of garlicky flavor, and it all comes together to be much greater than its humble ingredients.

You will need:
4 cups chicken broth, plus water, if necessary
2 large yellow tomatoes
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 zucchini, diced
5 strips of bacon, diced
2 cups arborio (or other risotto) rice
salt and pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano
4 egg yolks

To make the risotto:
In a medium saucepan, heat the broth on low just so that it is warm when you need it.

Using a sharp knife, carefully peel the yellow tomatoes, then drop them in a food processor and puree them until smooth and liquidy.

Place the onion, garlic, zucchini, and bacon in a large, heavy pot, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the bacon has begun to brown and the vegetables are becoming tender. Add the rice and stir the mixture together. Cook for a few minutes (2? 3?) until the all rice kernels are transparent around the edges and showing their "eyes."

Add half of the pureed tomatoes to the pot and stir until the tomato puree is absorbed by the rice. Add the other half and repeat the process. Do not add more liquids until the liquids you've already added are absorbed.

Once the tomato puree is absorbed, add the warm broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring regularly and making sure the stock is absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup. If you run out of broth before completing the risotto, use room temperature water in its stead. Once the rice is creamy, no longer crunchy in the center of each kernel, but still holding its shape, remove the mixture from the heat. Taste and season with salt and pepper as necessary.

Plate the risotto, making a soft hill with a small indentation in the center. Gently place an egg yolk in the indentation and scatter Parmigiano over it all.

Serves 4 optimists.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Zucchini Chronicles #1: Zucchini Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

The bird kept getting bigger; we expected that as Biggie's breed is famous for its size. Biggie's feathers started to come in more and more beautiful, the black reflecting deep green and purple. You know how gasoline looks as it floats on the edges of a puddle in the asphalt? That is what Biggie's feathers were turning into. Just above his rump, feathers started coming in pointed and growing longer and longer. Wait. Hens don't have elaborately beautiful tails.

Hens do not have elaborately beautiful tails, but roosters do.

He never crowed. He didn't beat up the other chickens. He didn't have a tell-tale fighting claw. He didn't have a lot of things, but he did have certain parts. And, unfortunately, we can't have those chicken parts on our ranchito.

I called the rancher who sold me Biggie, explained that the pullet she sold me was no pullet, and she agreed to exchange him for a hen. So ECG and I drove out on Saturday to trade Biggie in. Biggie cried in the cage when I separated him from the girls he had grown up with, and in the car, ECG and I weren't much happier.

We said goodbye to Biggie and got a Buff Orpington hen in exchange. We drove home silently, the only thing we were happy about was a good meal when we got back.

We should have been more optimistic. The Buff Orpington, Blondie, laid an egg as soon as she made herself comfortable in the coop.

Goodbye Biggie, Hello Blondie Zucchini Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes
Most gardeners I know have plenty of zucchini this time of year, so I figured I'd do a short series of good recipes that make use of the most reliable of vegetables. This particular meal was delicious, and the zucchini strips get tangled luxuriously into the mess of pasta, carrying rich garlicky greenness. For the roasted tomatoes, I follow Orangette's now-famous roasted tomatoes recipe, one that I've enjoyed thoroughly for a few years now.

You will need:
1 pound spaghetti or other strand-shaped pasta
1 mature zucchini
1 clove garlic, smashed and minced
good olive oil
salt and pepper
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
2 small-medium roasted tomatoes, still hot or reheated
4 ounces of fresh mozzarella, sliced
plenty of basil to tear and toss over the plate
a shower of freshly shredded Parmesan cheese

To make the pasta:
Put a pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta as required.

In the meantime, cut the zucchini lengthwise in half, and using a mandoline or vegetable peeler, cut it into long ribbons. Saute the zucchini and minced garlic in a large frying pan with a glug of good olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Cook just until the zucchini is supple and flavored through with the oil and garlic.

While the zucchini is cooking, stir the ricotta in a small bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and a shake of salt and freshly ground pepper.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it, and dump it into the large pan in which you cooked the zucchini. Toss the zucchini and pasta together until well combined.

Divide the pasta into four servings. Scatter pieces of the mozzarella over the top of the hot pasta, and place five roasted tomato halves on each serving. Scoop a dollop of the seasoned ricotta in the center of each plate of pasta, and finally, give each plate a dusting of basil and Parmesan.