Fruity booze, aka “summer bounce”

The hot weather is firmly entrenched in Mendocino county and the gardens have been popping! Between our backyard garden and the community garden plot we share with our friend Susan, we have been awash in blackberries, tomatoes, zucchini, and most prolifically, cucumbers. SO MANY CUCUMBERS. The first round of peppers are almost ready to be harvested and the eggplant and beans are flowering like mad. We have a little pumpkin that struggled at first but tripled in size in a week (maybe because now it’s getting water – go figure).

blackberries

These blackberries are a double whammy of delight, being both thornless and ginormous.

Plums are almost done but continue to ripen with a vengeance. Someone needs to tell the plum tree that it doesn’t need to produce *quite* so much fruit. The sidewalks are covered in rot, even from the trees that are being frequently harvested.

We’ve already done a round of picking, pitting, and canning plums, and I’m sort of plummed out in terms of processing. But I discovered an ingenious use for these tiny, fussy fruits: soak ’em in booze! I like to call it Plum Rum.

plums for rum

Pre-rum plums

I referenced my fruity booze obsession in an earlier post when I added rum-soaked strawberries to a cherry chutney I was making. Those strawberries were supposed to be the start of a summer rumpot, an idea I got from my friend Amber who makes it every year and gives out little jars of it for Christmas. I hoard my rumpot every time, so this year I decided to make one of my own.

Of course, Amber is a much more patient person than I am. Rumpot is supposed to sit for MONTHS, with new fruit (plus more sugar and booze) added as it comes into season. However, after just one week of soaking some strawberries back in May, I tasted it and declared it delicious and, therefore, done. I strained out the fruit, and strawberry rum was enjoyed by all (and, on one occasion, enjoyed a little too much by Susan and me).

With so many plums on hand I decided to give them a try. I smashed them ever so slightly, added significantly less sugar than I did to the strawberry rum (it was awesome but cloying), and let them sit for a week. VOILA – a light but lethal summer drink. A quart of it only lasted five days (to be fair, those days were over the long 4th of July weekend).

Right now I’m making another round, this time with the sunburned blackberries that weren’t good for eating. So if you’re in the neighborhood and in the mood for some blackberry plum rum, holler. It will be ready soon!

Here’s how to make your own.

FRUITY BOOZE (also called Summer Bounce, which I love)

  • Fresh fruit
  • Sugar
  • Rum or vodka

Wash the fruit and chop or slightly mash it and put it into a large non-reactive bowl. (I don’t actually know what this means, and I think I’ve been using a reactive bowl if aluminum is reactive, but I feel compelled to warn you that other recipes encourage a non-reactive receptacle.) Add sugar – I use about a 4:1 fruit to sugar ratio. Add enough cheap rum or vodka to cover the fruit. (I cannot emphasize enough how little the quality of booze matters here – the fruit will cover that taste up.) Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and let sit in a cool, dark place for at least a week. Once you think it’s ready, drain off the fruit (feel free to use the boozy fruit in other recipes like a chutney, or eat it, or chuck it) and serve with aplomb. I like to add it to fizzy water for a refreshing cocktail.

self portrait in rum

Self-portrait in the strawberry bounce

Life throws a curveball, or: When your boyfriend says he has internal bleeding, don’t roll your eyes

**Warning: for those of you familiar with my old blog, the length of this post is very much a throwback. Feel free to skim.**

The boy who didn’t cry wolf

When Carson got home from his fire shift on Monday morning, he was looking a little pale and said he didn’t feel well, which he attributed to having spent so many hours in a bumpy engine (Humboldt to Fresno and back in 36 hours – yeesh). He spent the rest of Monday and most of Tuesday in a flu-like state with a decent fever. He was lightheaded and his lower abdomen really hurt, but he had a vigorous appetite and managed to change a flat tire (his, not mine – I told him to call AAA!) so I figured it was a flu/sore-muscles-from-bumpy-ride combo. “Maybe I have internal bleeding,” he weakly suggested all day on Tuesday, followed by bouts of gentle moaning. “You’re fine,” I kept telling him, possibly with a few eye rolls. “It’s the flu.”

It’s not the flu

About 4 pm, he was doubled over in pain and his face was screwed up in what seemed to be a permanent grimace. I called the local urgent care center. “What’s his pain on a scale of 1-10?” asked the nurse I spoke with. “Four…” he mumbled. “Four?!?” I replied, not kindly. “We’re calling urgent care for a FOUR? Look at you. You’re like an eight.” The nurse advised we go to the ER, so I packed some snacks and a book and sweatshirts – knowing the hospital would be highly air conditioned – and away we went.

The triage nurse saw us at 4:30. By 5:00, he’d had blood drawn and an IV put in for fluids due to his high fever.

first IV

Carson’s first-ever IV

By 5:30, we knew his white cell count was high and he needed a CAT scan. By 6:30, we knew the results. The ER doctor was nice but spoke important things in a rushed way that made it hard to grasp, so when he walked in the words were already out of his mouth and we had to ask him to repeat himself. “You have acute appendicitis,” he said again. “You’re having surgery tonight.”

“What??” I exclaimed, raising my eyebrows and giggling in Carson’s direction, who was having a similar reaction. “That’s crazy!” I blurted out. “Way to keep calm for the patient,” the doctor scolded me. “Huh?” I replied, taken aback and embarrassed. “Oh, I mean, he’s… it’s fine. He knows what I mean.” And he did, of course, because it’s Carson and it’s hard to get him whipped up about anything. We’d been calm all day and we were still calm… we were just both so surprised! One of his first reactions was to say, “Well, at least it’s not a problem I’ll ever have again.” Then a much more ridiculous thing came out of my mouth: “It’s our first medical emergency as a couple!” It was Carson’s turn to roll his eyes.

Within 10 minutes the surgeon came in, then the anesthesiologist,  and 30 minutes later he was being wheeled away, so that a mere four hours after stepping foot into the ER Carson had his appendix removed. Later, the surgeon told me his appendix was twice the size of what they consider acute, and it had probably burst days ago. The operation didn’t take more than an hour, and they let me in to see him in recovery. From there I drove to Mary Anne and Howie’s to drop off a gluten-free peach cobbler I’d made for them earlier that day, the irony being that the glutenous one I made was special for Carson and now he wouldn’t get to eat any of it. I went back to the hospital an hour later to drop off some things. He was in his room and alert but sleepy, so I left him to rest.

Day Two: Under Pressure

The next day I spent 12 hours in his hospital room. Luckily the hospital has internet so I was able to work (because naturally this happened during my busiest work week yet as a freelancer). “Sorry I’m not paying much attention to you,” I told him after a few hours. “It’s okay, I’m not paying much attention to you, either,” he replied. We laughed. He was just happy to have me there, and I was happy to be there for him.

Unfortunately, his pain worsened throughout the day. As is common with most surgeries (or so I’m told), the air they fill the body cavity with builds in pressure until it finds some way to escape. Nothing we or the doctors or nurses did would relieve the pressure. When I finally left after 10 pm he was still trying desperately to work it out of his system.

Up Until the Wee Hours

When we’d left for the hospital on Tuesday I was in the middle of processing eight quarts of whole tomatoes. I had them all stewed, peeled, and packed, so I put them in the fridge until I could waterbath them. Wednesday night seemed like the time to do it (yes, at 10:30 pm), except I forgot that tomatoes take 45 minutes to process and I had to do it in two batches. It was a pain, but I always think preserving food is worth it, even when it keeps you up until 2:00 am. Turns out Carson was up most of the night, too. Hospital rest isn’t easy.

late night canning

I did at least use the waterbath time wisely, taking the opportunity to cook the chicken we had marinated for Tuesday’s dinner, make three quarts of pickles from our cucumber bounty (since, hell, the water bath was already going), write most of this and two other blogs, clean the kitchen, and take an oatmeal bath. Why the bath? Oh, didn’t I  mention that part? I’m covered in hives from head to toe.

hives

Unfortunately they got worse from here.

When we went to the ER on Tuesday we both agreed it was ironic that we were there for him and not me. I really am a pathetic sight – the hives have grown so that many of them look like superhives, and the one on my face is especially attractive. (Note to self: SHOWER IMMEDIATELY after a long day of hiking in hot weather, sweating, swimming in lakes and rivers, and repeatedly applying sunscreen. This is not the first time I’ve done this to myself.)

Day 3: On the Mend

I spent 15 hours by Carson’s side on Thursday, watching TV and working. It was a strange time vacuum, but it’s always nice to be there for the ones you love when they need you. Plus it was a good excuse to avoid social interaction and give my hives time to heal. When I got there in the morning he looked a thousand times better, and he got up frequently to wander the hospital halls in the hopes of relieving some of that ever-present pressure, occasionally joking that he was “plotting his escape.” They wanted to keep him one more night, though, so I went home around midnight and told him to call me when they were ready to release him the next day.

Day 4: Home Again, Home Again

The doctor decided to release him at 6:30 am – love that early morning wake-up call! – and he’s now in his own bed, semi-comfortably resting. I took a picture of him as he was leaving the hospital but he wasn’t very happy about that, so I’m not going to post it here. (I guess some memories don’t need to be cataloged?)

I’m having to dig down deep to find my nurturing side (my family is not comprised of the most patient caregivers [no offense, Mom]) but he’s an easy and grateful ward, and when he’s sleeping I can steal his narcotics so it’s not without recompense. (Kidding!!) He’ll have to take a few weeks off work but it’s nothing compared to what would have happened if we’d waited much longer to get it checked out; I shudder to think how quickly he would have turned septic. Here’s to a healthy and speedy recovery!

Shout Out to Ukiah’s Awesome Hospital

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quality of service and treatment Carson received at the Ukiah Valley Medical Center. It really is a wonderful hospital. I was amazed at how quickly everything happened in the ER, and the doctors and nurses were all extremely helpful and accommodating (though the doctors tended to talk too fast). Also, all the rooms are private, with private bathrooms and windows that open onto a grassy courtyard. The cafeteria serves pretty amazing food – dinner on Wednesday was a variety of Asian-inspired dishes, and Thursday offered authentic Mexican food including an incredible pozole – and I’m told the chef sources as many ingredients locally as possible. (Oh, Mendocino. Never change.) Also, the total bill seemed relatively affordable compared to what I think a CAT scan, surgery, and three-night hospital stay would be in San Francisco, for instance. Over the course of my life I haven’t had to spend much time in hospitals – happily – but I’m relieved to know that my local hospital is such a good one.

If you’re around and want to stop by, Carson will be a captive audience for a few days!

Locavore gazpacho and pickles

Sarah from Eat Mendocino came to dinner last week. She wrote about it here, so I won’t reiterate too much except to say that I helped her make pickles – her first canning process from start to finish – and I love that she described me as both artfully efficient and contagiously enthusiastic. I try!

It was really hot out – too hot to be canning really, but not much keeps me from that project – so I ended up skipping the stuffed tomatoes in favor of a refreshing gazpacho. This was a brilliant choice because most of the flavor comes from fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, which I have in spades right now thanks to tending two separate gardens.

If you’ve never made gazpacho (which is a cold tomato soup), it’s really easy and can be adjusted any which way. Here’s how I did it, plus some variation suggestions.

gazpacho

Summer Gazpacho

Ingredients:

  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Zucchini
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt

Ingredients I would have used if I had any that were produced in Mendocino:

  • Lemon juice
  • Black pepper
  • Stale bread

Preparation:

The quantity of each ingredient depends entirely on what you have on hand and how much you want to make, but in general you want about 2:1 tomatoes to cucumber and any other vegetables such as zucchini, peppers,  cauliflower, or eggplant. I’d avoid broccoli but I can’t explain why I feel that way. This is a particularly good way to use up zucchini since it adds volume and dulls the acidity and spiciness of all those tomatoes and garlic heads.

Chop everything into large chunks. Throw it all in the blender or food processor with some water and about 1/4 cup olive oil per batch (if you’re making a boatload, you may have to blend several batches). Also per batch: 1-4 cloves garlic depending on your taste preference, a little red onion if so inclined, about 1 TBSP lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. If you’re doing it the Spanish way, soak a piece of stale bread in water and throw that in there, too. It sounds gross but it gives it a lovely, smooth consistency. Some gazpacho is served chunky, but I prefer to blend mine until smooth and then add toppings for texture.

Chill for at least an hour, and preferably overnight. I topped ours with local Shamrock goat cheese and some chopped walnuts. I also tossed a few blackberries into mine, because what the hell? And it was a great flavor.

A popular variation uses watermelon and feta cheese. I highly recommend it.

Overall thoughts on feeding a locavore: I was a little panicked that I’d accidentally feed her something not grown or produced in Mendocino county, but it turns out I had tons of local food thanks to the garden and local products I already buy. Also, Sarah brought ingredients like olive oil, butter to cook the salmon backs in, and her own apple cider vinegar and pickling spices that Gowan had dried. The McFadden champagne I happened to have on hand (booty from Taste of Mendocino) was the cherry on top of it all – or should I say blackberry?

Nutty cheesy stuffed tomatoes

I’ve been wanting to have the Eat Mendocino gals over for dinner and my mind has been in overdrive with all the possible recipes I could serve them. We’ve been enjoying ripe garden tomatoes for over a week now, and our Washington Red plant is especially prolific. They’re small to medium in size with great flavor but, unfortunately, tough skin. I took one to Anne at C&A Organics (my favorite farmer’s market vendor!) who sold us the plant, and she recommended stuffing them with almonds and bleu cheese and roasting them. Yes, please!

My friend Brook came over for dinner last week, giving me a great opportunity to try out this recipe. I usually shy away from stuffed appetizers because they take FOREVER (hello mushrooms). However, these were pleasantly fast and fun to assemble. First, I scooped out the top with a strawberry/tomato corer.

tomato 1

 

I briefly inverted them so some of the water would drain, salted them, and stuffed them with chopped smoked almonds and a hunk of bleu cheese.

tomato 2

There was still a bunch of room on the pan and I’d rather cook everything as a single dish if I can, so I added some white wine chicken sausage. There was STILL room so I sliced up a zucchini and marinated it in creole seasoning. The entire process took 30 minutes to assemble and about 15 minutes to bake/broil. Here’s the end result:

tomato smorgasboard

(Yes, I lined the pan with foil. I think it creates less waste than the water and soap required to scrub a dirty pan, not to mention time saved).

Served with a garden salad, homemade sprouts, and Prosecco with a blackberry float, this was an awesome meal. The tomatoes were overcooked for my tastes, but when I made them again a few days later I got the cook time just right (about 6 minutes under broil).

Sarah from Eat Mendocino is coming over for dinner tomorrow, and I think I’ll make this again with local walnuts and some local cheese from Ukiah’s Co-Op.

If you have an abundance of medium-sized tomatoes, I highly recommend experimenting with these stuffed beauties.

I’m on the front page!

Sometimes I write articles about local community issues and send them to Mendocino media outlets to run. On Thursday I got my first-ever front page billing, for “School gardens in crisis.” Check it out:

UDJ front page

To read the article, you can click here. It’s about  the loss of funding for school gardens, and how nutrition education and growing food has a huge impact on students. I think it’s a pretty important issue, especially if you live in Mendocino.

Thanks, Ukiah Daily Journal!

4th of July at the Ukiah Speedway

I grew up with what can only be described as a pyromaniac brother. As a kid, the 4th of July meant long weekends at our family friends’ cabin on Lake Tapps, firework trips to the nearby Indian reservation, a front-row seat to the local show via their boat, and then our own private show on the dock. Such happy memories… To this day, my brother Eric puts on an elaborate 4th of July show at his house, so imagine my dismay when last 4th of July – my first in Mendocino – I didn’t hear or see a SINGLE FIREWORK. I had a few sparklers that we lit and overall the day was fun, but it wasn’t the same. This year I resolved to get my firework fix.

On the Saturday before the 4th, Carson and I headed to the Ukiah Speedway. For $14 each we were treated to six different races and a fantastic firework show, not to mention excellent people watching. I really can’t say enough good things about the people there – we may not run in the same circles but they were friendly as could be.

The most exciting race was actually the very first one, which were “Jammer” class cars – they had the most crashes and the closest finish. However, the second race was a close second: it was the “Legends,” which can only be described as a live-action cartoon. These tiny, custom-made cars are fast and noisy, and when they crash they literally jump off the ground. Even better, the tow truck lowers a grabber-like claw, picks them up from the roof, and drives off the course with them dangling behind them! I never imagined such a spectacle.

Legends

As for the fireworks show… wow. So much better than I expected! It was set up in the middle of the track and was really low, so they exploded directly above our heads. It was pretty long with a good variety, and the best were these small golden cracklers that seemed to explode by the thousands over the course of two or three minutes. I kept smacking Carson’s arm (I think he was more entertained by my reaction than the show itself) and I couldn’t stop smiling.

We very nearly went to the Lakeport races the following Saturday for an encore, but ultimately decided one show was enough. I know where I’m spending my next 4th of July, though!

Speedway us

How not to resist: living with (and loving) the heat

When I moved to Ukiah last year, a friend gave me an invaluable piece of advice: “Don’t resist the heat. Give in. Let it wash over you.” At first I didn’t really understand, until that first hot day smacked me upside the head. “Don’t resist!” I admonished myself. I endeavored not to complain and not to hate it, and it worked. These days I’m more or less a heat lover, until it hits 105 or so. On those days, the plants will wilt no matter how much you watered them that morning. Empty mason jars in our back room seal themselves, with the familiar “tink!” being heard all afternoon. The most energetic among us languish. Diet is based on standing in front of a frozen freezer, eating anything that doesn’t require cooking, or going to a restaurant with A/C. On these days I really, truly have to submit and live my life based on staying cool. Here’s how I do it.

1) Get up early. When Carson’s home and it’s hot out, we generally get up at 5 am. When he isn’t here to drag me out of bed, I tend to sleep in but try to get up by 7. That way I can get everything done early and laze about during the heat of the day.

2) Avoid electricity. Even  the heat from a lightbulb feels like searing heat when it’s 110 outside, so turning on the oven is out of the question. If we don’t already have a dinner plan I will probably make whatever it is first thing in the morning – boiling noodles for a pesto pasta salad, for instance. Even that heats up the kitchen, though.

3) Draw the blinds. We’re blessed with an attic fan and new windows, so we’re pretty well insulated. However, our central air is broken. Boo. During the day we keep all the windows and doors closed and all the blinds and shades drawn. Once it’s cooler outside than it is inside, we open everything up. This cools the house down beautifully if it’s under 100; once it breaks 100 degrees, nothing will cool the house down.

4) Go swimming. Pretty much every day I hit a friend’s pool, the river, the lake, the reservoirs at Cow Mountain, or at the very least the backyard sprinkler. As a result I have crazy swimming hair most of the time. Personal appearance has definitely tanked with the advent of summer – I wear the same running shorts and light tee just about every day. If Carson minds, he hasn’t complained yet!

5) Stay hydrated. Every morning I make several jars of iced tea, which is a more fun way to hydrate than drinking water. We also drink a lot of lemon water and fruit spritzers with sparkling water (and sometimes booze).

6) Give in. I lay on the floor a lot, and watch a lot of Netflix, and hang out with friends by the water. What I try not to do (and sometimes succeed) is complain. After all, what good will it do me?

7) When all else fails, head west. An hour and a half in the car rewards you with a 20-30 degree drop. Plus, the coast is beautiful.

What do you do to stay cool?

Pool

River