Sunday, July 31, 2011

But, Wait . . . Am I a Travel Writer?

Zora, the writer and explorer behind Roving Gastronome and Astoria Ugly, just tagged me in the My 7 Links meme that travel writers are passing around amongst themselves. I don't participate in blog memes very often; in fact the last time I did was just around this time of year in 2007, and the meme was "seven things about me." This time, I am choosing to participate because I've got a string of posts in the works that I just can't seem to finish. Perhaps by looking through my own past writing, I can get myself moving forward.

Here goes:
1) Most beautiful post:
In Harriet, I write and post pictures about my grandmother. I love this post because I loved my grandmother.

2) Most popular post:
Strangely, it's tied between two recipe-only posts Midsummer Jams and Homemade Spiced Rum. That makes me a little sad, as I hoped my writing would get more attention than my recipes; the recipes, I hoped, were frosting.

3) Most controversial post:
Controversial? Hmm, I write about gardening and food and memory, so I don't tend to be terribly controversial. Nevertheless, I've received some emails over my posts (here, here, and here) on small-scale, high-density home orchards, telling me that I'll never be able to grow them organically. As if to throw a middle leaf in the face of these critics, my high-density, organically fertilized (manure, worm tea, and liquid seaweed), heavily mulched trees are cropping and growing healthily. As an added bonus, I use less water on them than I do on lawn. So, take that, disbelievers.

4) Most helpful post:
Hmm, these two, The Rules and Handy Tips for the New Homeowner, are tongue-in-cheek helpful, but the most helpful one for me personally to write was Graduation, Death, and Chickens. Oh, and the people who aren't disagreeing with me about the orchard posts seem to have found them helpful as well.

5) Post whose success surprised me:
Way Way Up got a lot of local attention when I posted it. In fact, people blogged about it. I'm always surprised when someone finds my little blog, and when lots of people find it at one time, I'm very, very surprised.

6) Most underappreciated post:
I really enjoyed researching and writing Psalmanazar, but very few people have read it. It's light on pictures, is only obliquely personal, and contains no recipe, characteristics that lead to light readership at A Thinking Stomach, yet I felt the story was fascinating enough to make up for what it didn't have.

7) Post of which I'm most proud:
This is a toss up. Books and Mantids explains how I got here. The post Survivor hints at what kind of book I'd like to write someday. Both blend personal, natural, and cultural history into the color of light in which I view the world.


Though the meme asks for five new people, I'm only tagging four. I've chosen these four because they each demonstrate unique ways of talking about the world in which they live, they are distinctly different from each other, and I've learned from each of their voices. (To the writers who I am tagging, I understand being hesitant to complete this meme. Do not feel obligated to do it or pass it on; I've completely ignored tags before just because I really didn't want to write the meme. However, I hope tagging you brings you more readers, for I believe each of you should be read by everyone, and if you do choose to complete the meme, I'll be delighted to read what you write. )

Altadena Hiker: A very talented writer, Karin (as another blogger put it so well) is the "master of the micro epic." I would love to see how she reflects on and sifts through her own writing with this meme.

Nourish Me: Lucy and I began blogging at around the same time, and I feel like we grew up in the blogosphere together. I'm lucky to get see how Lucy looks at the world.

Soilman: Soilman is the shizzle. His writing and bitter humor crack me up. Really, who knew gardening could be so funny?

Whole Larder Love: The stories Ro tells with his photos blow me away and make me want to move to Australia right now. Plus, he's funny, and he loves good food, and he hunts. Expect to get hungry reading this site.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Something New and Very Old

A former student is spending her summer at an architecture program in Spain. She's writing about her experiences and posting pictures of what she sees and learns. Among her adventures was a weekend trip to Portugal, and as I read her memories, I could imagine myself a few years ago in exactly the same spots she described. It has also made me remember the food: the pasteis de natas, the bacalhau, the polvo, those melons that blew my mind, and the way that the Moorish influence wiggled its way into at least part of every meal. Such a nice balance of salt, sweet, and spice—when I found that, I felt like I was tasting Portuguese history.

Tomato Jam

Last week, I canned seven quarts of tomatoes to use in sauces and the like in the winter. I know that jars of my homemade tomato paste will be happening soon, but since I have lots of tomatoes, I wanted to try something that I've never made before. I've had boring tomato jams (tomatoes plus sugar plus pectin) and I've had delicious, complex tomato jams that are as good with cheese as they are on toast as they are with meat. This is one of the latter. In fact, this rocks the latter category. I found the original recipe here on Food52, but I wanted to add lemon, a little heat, twist the acid a bit to up the Iberian inflection. If you can stop eating this directly from the jar with a spoon, try smearing it on a turkey burger. You can thank me later.

The recipe I adapted claimed this made 1 1/2 pints, but with the addition of the lemon (and the added pectin from it, leading to a need for less cooking time), I ended up with a generous 2 pints.

You will need:
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seed
3 1/2 pounds of ripe garden tomatoes, roughly chopped (don't peel or seed the tomatoes since both add pleasant texture and beauty to the finished jam)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 whole large, ripe Meyer lemon, chopped (discard seeds as you find them)
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes (my chile flakes are really hot; if yours are just warm, you may consider adding more)
1/4 cup Sherry vinegar

To make the jam:
In a small frying pan, toast the coriander and cumin seeds until fragrant. Remove from heat and crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle. Don't grind to a fine powder, but instead leave the seeds chunky.

Dump the seeds along with all the other ingredients into a large, heavy pot and bring all the ingredients to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and keep at a healthy simmer, stirring occasionally. The recipe I adapted calls for three hours of simmering, but my jam was ready after two. Once the mixture has reached a glossy, jam-liked consistency, you're ready to jar the goodness.

Pour the jam into sterilized jars, wipe the rims clean, lid with new, warmed lids, and screw on the ring until "finger tight." Process in a boiling water bath, fully immersed, for 15 minutes.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

On Fresh Salsa

I went to a magnet elementary school in a city in the San Joaquin Valley that used the local university's field for weekend track practice. I didn't run track, but my brother did. His team, a group of multi-ethnic kids from all over the city, looked the children of a UN convention, but sunburned and sweaty.

In the central valley, it gets hot and the sun is inescapable. The metal bleacher benches burned the bottoms of my thighs as I watched practice with my mom. The kids, during and after practice, would chug lukewarm water, but it just seeped right out of their pores immediately. They were water sieves, drinking and sweating and drinking and sweating.

One of the other kids' mothers would always be at practice too, watching and, more importantly to me, making salsa to share. She'd sit on the bleachers next to us with a cutting board on her lap. As she chopped ripe tomatoes, their red-flecked limpid juices would drip, drip, drip off the corner of the board. She'd chop sweet onion and lots of cilantro and toss them into a large bowl with the tomatoes. With the side of her knife, she'd smash garlic cloves, chop them up a bit, and add to the bowl. She'd mince a chile or two then scrape the fiery bits into the mix. In one quick move, she'd slice a lemon in half, and with her strong hands, she'd squeeze it directly into the bowl. She held the salt shaker well above the bowl and shook it so that salt hailed over the whole mixture, lots of salt. Finally, she'd stir the whole mixture together with her hands.

After practice, the kids would crowd around the bowl, shoving tortilla chips into the soupy salty spicy stuff. They'd double dip. Salsa would drip off their chips and down their wrists, to be licked up later. My mom and I would get in on the action too. After all the bits and pieces of were scooped up, several of the kids would share the leftover juices, tipping heads back and the bowl forward to drink directly from it.

This is how I learned to make salsa.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Summer Lessons

I have a friend who is coming once a week through the summer to help me in the garden. Last week, she and I went to town on the evil ivy hedge that lines one edge of our property. I hate ivy. It's drought resistant, it grows like a weed in the sun or shade, and it makes a lush bank all year long. Why, then, do I hate it? It sneaks like a cursed wraith into every nook and cranny it can snake its searching vines inside. It suddenly pops up out of the ground three feet from the rest of the plant. It provides a home for rats and skunks and raccoons, and did I mention rats? In a month, it will overtake anything growing near it. And, it is nearly impossible to kill.

So, every six months or so, I attack it with whatever cutting tool I have on hand. I whack it back into temporary submission and pull out as many of its branches as I can. When I'm done, it looks tame for a week or so.

Last week, we started in morning shade shearing, cutting, and pulling up as much as we could of the ivy. My friend, not a curser, began picking up some of my potty mouth as the morning wore on, the shade wore away, and we got more and more dusty, overheated, and exhausted. I worried that my friend might never want to come and help me again after such hard work. After we finished a good section of the hedge, we went on to do the relatively easy and much more enjoyable tasks of planting dent corn and repotting a few indoor orchids.

At the end of our work time last week, I asked my friend what she had learned in the course of the day.

She told me this: "Never, ever plant ivy in the ground."


If I had a summer kitchen intern, one of the first things that I would teach him or her would be how to make frangipane. It is the opposite of trimming the ivy hedge. It takes very little work with a huge payoff. Adding frangipane to a summer fruit tart immediately ups the oooooooh and aaaaaaah factor exponentially, yet it is such a breeze to make. It gives anyone with access to good fruit and an excellent pie crust recipe the guise of accomplishment in the kitchen.

I've made frangipane many, many times, and most recipes are nearly identical: almonds, sugar, butter, egg, a bit of flour for binding, and almond extract to boost the nuts' flavor. A couple years ago, I stopped worrying about using blanched almonds. I like the effect of leaving the skin on; the skins add to the oatmeal color of the paste, they don't detract in any way from the flavor, and whole raw almonds are much cheaper and less fiddly than blanched almonds. Recently, in a Martha Stewart video clip, I noticed that she adds dark rum to her frangipane recipe when she makes pithiviers. I include it in the recipe below because I liked its effect; it definitely deepens the almond flavor. As well, though most recipes don't call for it, I add a healthy pinch of salt to round out the richness of the recipe.

You will need:
2/3 cup whole skin-on almonds, toasted (place in a skillet on medium heat for a couple minutes, tossing them around a bit in the pan until they begin to smell fragrant and get toasted spots)
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons soft butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon dark rum
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
healthy pinch of salt

To make the frangipane:
The food processor is your friend, here. Drop the almonds and the sugar in a food processor, and whirl until the mixture is finely ground. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and whirl until smooth.

Yes, it is that easy.

Place the mixture in the refrigerator until your crust is rolled out and ready to be spread with frangipane. When I use it in a fruit tart, I make my favorite pie crust recipe, roll the crust out, fold over the edges to make a bit of a pastry plate, smear on the frangipane, add some sliced fruit, sprinkle with sugar, then bake the whole thing for an hour, or until the top edges are browning nicely. You might even consider making a double batch and keeping one of the batches in the freezer, ready to have on hand when you want to build a dessert worthy of the perfect summer peaches and plums.