Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Way, Way Up

Below me, I could hear a hawk scream.

Sitting where Einstein sat in 1931 as he rode the bucket up to the top, I couldn't see the hawk through the clouds, but I could hear it and the whispers of history as the bucket slowly rose to the top of the Mt. Wilson Solar Tower.

A benefit of being married to ECG, I get to experience hands-on, butt-on, sometimes white-knuckled science. And Sunday, I got thrown headlong into astronomical history at the Mt. Wilson Observatory when ECG and I accompanied a friend to inspect the workings of the solar observatory. Our guide, our friend's friend who had requested the help, showed us the inside and out of the place where the universe became much larger. The four of us were all over the mountain and its stories.

While some of the observatories and telescopes on the mountains seem archaic, all are still performing real work, and some of them are completing work so far beyond my understanding, I can only think of the big, big sky getting even bigger.

Sitting where Einstein sat, hiking in Hale and Hubble's steps, wandering through the halls where the almost-forgotten young Englishman who loved the mountain and the science lived before a sinus infection spread to his brain and killed him, and looking up and up where the seeing is good—all of this did not make me feel small; instead, it made the giants seem human-sized.

I went up a mountain and came down closer to the sky.


Julia Child was from Pasadena, and in my imagination, she encountered Hubble and Einstein at some swanky dinner party when home from France for the holidays sometime in the very early 50s. The scientists were immediately charmed by Paul Child, his curiosity, and the occasional spy story that he hinted at with sparse detail and twinkly eyes. Already an old man and visiting from Princeton for only a weekend, uncomfortable Einstein immediately felt at ease with the equally awkward but infinitely more confident Julia, and she made him laugh.

The elderly scientists invited the Childs up the mountain, and there, while Julia plopped a few good ingredients into a dish and fiddled with the temperamental oven in The Monastary, the men clambered over the top of the mountain, talking and swapping ideas. On their ramblings, they wandered through the machine shop, where Paul examined the tool-covered wall, picking up an idea that would come to fruition years later in Julia's own kitchen.

Once Julia hand conquered the oven and set the dinner to scent the kitchen, she stepped out to find the men in the 100-inch telescope, talking and laughing and explaining. She joined them, telling her own stories and listening, listening to hear the stars.

When the cold iced eyes to tears, the foursome moved back inside. Julia opened the oven and presented dinner.

Poulet en Cocotte Bonne Femme
Adapted from Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, Child, Bertholle, and Beck

You will need:
1 pound of small, baby potatoes, cleaned
4 strips of good bacon
1 3 pound chicken, ready to roast
4 cloves of garlic
a handful of fresh thyme sprigs and a couple broken bay leaves

To make the chicken:
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Place the potatoes in a large pot full of salted water, and bring to a boil. As soon as the water reaches a boil, remove the pot from heat and let the pot sit until you are ready for the potatoes.

Meanwhile, cut the bacon strips into 1 inch lengths and cook over medium heat in a Dutch oven until the bacon is about halfway cooked and has rendered a good portion of its fat. Remove the pot from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, scoop out the bacon and set it on a large plate. Using the slotted spoon, remove the potatoes from the other pot and place them in the Dutch oven. Add the garlic cloves to the pot as well. Toss the garlic and potatoes with the bacon fat. Once they are coated, use the spoon to remove the garlic and potatoes, and place them on the same platter as the pieces of bacon.

Turn the heat back on under the Dutch oven, this time to high. Pat the chicken with a clean rag or paper towels to dry it off, sprinkle it liberally with salt, and place it in the hot pan. Brown the chicken all over, using heavy tongs to turn it every five minutes or so. Once you've browned the chicken as well as you can, place it breast side up in the pan.

Scoop the potatoes, garlic, and bacon back into the Dutch oven, tucking them around the chicken. Toss the pieces of bay and thyme over all. It should look like this:

Cover the Dutch oven tightly, adding a layer of tinfoil if you need to in order to get a good seal, and place it into the oven. Bake the chicken for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes, or until the meatiest portion of the chicken has reached 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Using your mighty tongs, place the bird and the potatoes on a serving platter. Enjoy under a cold, clear night sky.

Serves four bright ones.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Starting Out

The lizards are out there doing push-ups every morning. They've reminded me that I can't let this lazy ass be a lazy ass.

I've got to start small, but I've got to start.

Oh, I work hard in the garden, digging and digging and digging so that I hurt every where. But I do that for a week, then I sit on my bottom for another few weeks before I do it again. I can't let the digging be my only regular exercise. It clearly isn't enough. I feel too gooey to be content with digging alone, so running it is.

I had never run much before my senior year of high school. During that year, probably against my own better judgement, I joined my school's cross country team. To join a team where the majority of the girls had been running long distances since pulling themselves out of the womb, had been running even when the temperature was below zero and it hurt to breathe, was to say the least a painful experience.

My coach put me on a strict plan my first week out: run one minute, walk one minute, for two miles. The next week: run five minutes, walk one, for three miles. Pretty soon, I was running five miles without thinking about stopping. While I was able to move my body for relatively long distances within the first few weeks of the season, I wasn't able to move it very quickly. I remember one friend of mine, after seeing me running along the road while he was driving home from school tell me, "Christina, to run, you have to pick up your feet and move them." I've never been a fan of sarcasm; that comment did not go over too well. I was taking small steps, but at least I was taking them, and taking lots of them at that.

As it does for everyone who runs regularly, it got easier and faster. I remember the moment when it felt possible to not just jog along, but really run. I was running a loop near my house, and had turned the corner where I was closest to Lake Minnetonka, just steps away. As I ran through that corner, away from the lake on the second leg of the run towards home, I could feel my knees lift higher with each step and my stride extend. My breathing was in perfect rhythm to my footsteps, and it felt like my heart was right in the physical concert too. Sweating, breathing hard, I didn't feel tired. I felt free and elated. I controlled every single part of my body, from the swinging left hand to the heel-toe step.

At the end-of-season award ceremony, my coach gave me the award for Most Improved. He stood in front of the team, called me forward, and congratulated me on "improving as much as the Grand Canyon is big."

I did it once.

A few years after moving to Pasadena, I took a long meandering walk that led me to the Rose Bowl. The circuit around the stadium was irregularly shaped, skirting the edges of the canyon, and was full of people: strong and weak, fat and slim, old and young. Mothers jogged behind strollers with twins inside, hipsters ran in their hot-colored shoes, middle-aged couples walked their dogs, a handsome young man held his very elderly grandmother's hand as they made their way around. Hundreds of people used this place to exercise and accepted all the other people there too. Seeing these people, I knew I could feel good about running here.

I began again, following my old coach's routine for me. I would run frequently at the same time, and eventually, I built a no-introduction, no-name, no-conversation running relationship with a middle-aged man who had a similar schedule to me. We would frequently encounter each other at the southwest corner of the circuit, fall in stride with each other, and after a few paces, begin to race. We'd race each other as fast as we reasonably could (considering that neither of us were track-star-material and both of us were working this race into the middle of a longer run) down the length of the circuit to the other end. Once there, we'd just stop racing. The winner would continue at his or her pace, and the loser at his or her own. The only thing he ever said to me was "good run."

I did it a second time, but then I stopped. Time to start again.

What running teaches: I've done it before. I can do it again.

Sweet Braised Whole Scallions

From Molly Steven's All About Braising
What to do with scallions? Cook them? Really? Yes.

Put them in the oven, go for a run, come back and finish these babies off, to end up with a succulent pan of mild onion-y goodness. To counteract all the positive benefits of that run, you could top these with a shower of fried bread crumbs, but they're wonderful the way they are. This is an extremely flexibly recipe that I modified a bit to make for a larger crowd, but I'll share it as originally published so that you can play with it as you like.

You will need:
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 pound scallions, roots and scraggly tips trimmed away
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh tarragon or parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Lemon juice to taste

To make the dish:
Heat the oven to 350 and smear most of the butter all over the bottom and sides of a 9x13" baking dish. Lay half of the onions lengthwise along the bottom of the dish with the bulbs against a short end. Lay the other half of the onions the other direction so that the greens overlap in the middle of the pan.

Pour the water over the onions, cut up the remaining butter into tiny pieces (or smudges) and drop over the onions, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and your herb of choice, cover with tinfoil, and place the whole thing in the oven to braise for 35-40 minutes.

Remove the foil from the dish and raise the heat to 450. Roast the scallions for 20 minutes, then shake the pan back and forth to coat the scallions with the glaze that will have formed. Continue to roast the onions until all the liquid evaporates and they delicious brown caramelized edges. Squirt with a spray of lemon juice and serve.

This should serve six folks, whether they've gone running that day or not.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Nearly out of a romance novel:
A statuesque beauty in a lovely dressing gown of seafoam green steps out, and no one can look away from her violet eyes and startling red coif. So beautiful, so dramatic, everyone wants her. She dances in the gardens of what passes for royalty in American history. Then, she disappears.

But, hundreds of years later, she is alive.

For the incredible story behind this poppy, please read this post.

If you'd like to help me keep this part of history alive, let me know in a comment, and I'll do my best to save some seed for you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Farm Hands

A few weeks ago, I promised to publicize someone who started a company to provide consultations, installations, and maintenance of food producing gardens. Well, someone has, and that someone turns out to be my good friend Russell.

If you live in the San Gabriel Valley and you're looking for help with your veggie and fruit gardens, you may want to consider employing the very talented Russ for help. (He has his masters in landscape architecture! He's a sculptor with an incredible sense of design! He's remarkably kind, responsible, and hard working!) Biased I am, but instead of relying on my praise, I'll share what he's written about what he can offer:

Farm Hands is a company specializing in creating and maintaining yards to be not only beautiful, but useful, too. Created by a recent landscape architecture graduate student and staffed by garden care specialists, Farm Hands installs and maintains vegetable gardens and existing fruit trees, in yards of all shapes and sizes (on a small or large scale). We consult with each client to determine the best possible set up, but the choice ultimately rests with each owner.

The process is simple: Each week, your own “Farm Hand” will maintain your garden plot(s), using organic techniques and harvesting the produce at its peak. As the number of Farm Hands yards in your area grows, so does the option to share your produce with others in exchange for edibles not in your own plot(s). Additionally, individuals lacking yards of their own can sign up to receive a basket of vegetables each week from a local vegetable garden near their neighborhood.

Price per installation varies.
Price for fruit tree maintenance and harvesting also varies

We offer two sizes of vegetable baskets per week:
Full Basket - $35 per week – Good for two people or a small family
Half Basket - $25 per week – Good for one person

Additionally, Farm Hands offers these basic services:

• Initial garden evaluation, soil testing, design, and installation
• Weekly garden follow up to keep the yard space growing and producing edibles
• Organic techniques to grow and maintain vegetables and existing fruit trees
• A weekly basket of produce from your yard and possibly others in your neighborhood
• Ongoing garden maintenance, organic disease and pest control, and networking with other farm owners in your area

If Russell's company Farm Hands sounds like a good fit for you or something you'd like to learn more about, you can contact him at LAfarmhands@gmail.com.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring Tonic

Raid your hills (as long as they're not in a protected area), your backyard, or a neighbor's backyard (with permission, of course), and collect the elder flowers that are blooming somewhere near you. Don't collect too many per plant—remember, you or the local wildlife may want to collect fruit later in the year—and choose flowers that have just opened. Avoid any with brown spots or have begun to set fruit.

Then, set out to make your own cordial, a mixer that tastes of clean muscat grapes and a bouquet of flowers you want to eat.

Elderflower Cordial

You will need:
1.5 liters water
1.35 kg sugar
30 grams citric acid
3 whole lemons, thinly sliced (I used meyer lemons because that is what I have, but I think the floral nature of the meyer lemons works really well in this)
25 heads of just-opened elderberry flowers (don't rinse them off because the pollen contains flavor; don't worry about the bugs because you'll end up straining them out later)

To make the cordial:
Combine the sugar and water in a large pot, and heat the mixture, stirring occasionally, just until the sugar has dissolved. Let it cool, then add the lemons and the citric acid. Stir until the citric acid is dissolved completely. Make sure the mixture is really cool (no warmer then room temperature), and stir in the flowers. Cover the pot and let it sit for 48 hours.

Once the flowers, lemons, and syrup have sat around for a couple of days, the flavors will have combined into something that tastes like bee heaven. Pour the mixture through a colander into a large bowl to remove the flowers and pieces of lemon, then pour through a double-layer of cheesecloth to remove all the finer grit: bugs, dust, and other goodies. Finally, pour into two sterilized 750 ml bottles. You may have a little extra that you can pour into a jar for near-immediate consumption.

To serve, add to sparkling water, vodka and ice, lemonade, or any other concoction where spring in a glass is welcome.

This should keep, refrigerated, for one month.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

366 Days Later

Yesterday, ECG and I celebrated one year of marriage.

To celebrate, I made a simple Christina-classic.

Mango Sour Cream Ice Cream
Adapted from 125 Best Ice Cream Recipes, Linton and Linton.

This ice cream, one that I've made more frequently than any other (and I'm a frequent ice cream maker), is heady with mango. The sour cream instead of custard base is creamy and dense, tangy and rich, and adds a fresh note that is welcome when it is warm outside. Once you've tried using sour cream as an ice cream base, I think you'll find whole new ways to apply it. Although I have not yet tried it, I think this recipe would be delicious with nectarines or strawberries to replace the mangoes. Play with it and let me know what you come up with.

You will need:
2 very ripe large mangoes
Several limes
Some sugar (between 1/4 cup and 3/4 cup, depending on the fruit's sweetness)
1 1/2 cups sour cream

To make the ice cream:
Peel the mangoes and cut the fruit off the pits. Place the fruit into a food processor with 1/4 cup sugar and the juice of one lime. Blend, pulsing the processor until the mixture is completely smooth. Pour the mixture into a bowl and stir in the sour cream until completely combined. Taste. Most likely at this point you will need a touch more sugar; remember, that ice cream should be a little on the sweet side, since once it is frozen, it won't taste as sweet. Add sugar as necessary. Does it taste bright enough? If not, add more lime juice. Stir again to make sure to combine all ingredients, and place the mixture in a covered container to chill (in both senses of the word) for a few hours before pouring into your ice cream maker. From here on out, follow the directions your ice cream machine provides.

This is sweet goodness, I tell you. All of it.