November 9: Eat dinner, drink wine, support gardens

I’ve been doing a lot of work in the garden community here. Did you know that Mendocino County is the only place in the whole country that has a garden at each public school?

Here are two articles I’ve written about the school gardens:

We’ve been brainstorming about how to fund these gardens, and after I shared one of these articles with my friend Sarah of Eat Mendocino, she was moved to dedicate the next farm-to-table dinner to supporting garden-enhanced nutrition education (GENE).

If you’re free next Saturday and in the Ukiah area, please join us! If you don’t have $50 but still want to participate, we need volunteers. Contact Sarah directly to get involved: eatmendocino[at]gmail.com.

Nov9_dinner copy

See you there!

 

The end of the cukes, and: a fruity gazpacho variation

It’s official – cucumber season is over in our household! I ripped them out of the ground last weekend after harvesting the final dozen smallish cukes.

cuke destruction

Here’s my swan song to this highly productive cucumber season. I wrote about the merits of cucumber gazpacho, but there’s another sweetheart in the cold soup category that merits a mention: fruit gazpacho.

Perhaps the most delicious dish I made all summer, this fruit gazpacho straddled the line between sweet and savory. As a bonus, it also used cucumber!

Watermelon-basil gazpacho

Ingredients:

  • 5 lb watermelon, de-seeded with rind removed
  • 1 cup sliced peaches or nectarines
  • 1 lb cucumber, peeled and de-seeded
  • A generous bunch of basil (Thai basil works especially well)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 cup onion
  • 1/2 cup white, red, or rice wine vinegar
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Throw everything into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving. Top with chunks of feta and a drizzle of olive oil and/or balsamic vinegar.

To make this even more savory, add a tomato or two and a pepper to the blend. A spicy pepper would probably be delicious as well!

the final harvest

Sharing the joy of canning

Last Saturday I taught a canning class sponsored by North Coast Opportunities at the Willits Grange. We had 10 people come out and spent four fun hours cooking and canning 54 jars of applesauce and green tomato pickles. It was awesome.

I emphasized two things:

  1. The food we were canning would otherwise have rotted on the ground.
  2. Canning is not as scary as people think it is.

canning class 1

I wrote a two-part series for Eat Mendocino about preserving food. First I talked about making refrigerator pickles, and then I explained how to preserve them using a water bath. I’m not on Facebook, but apparently there was some outcry that I had not followed the proper steps for food safety (which, for the record, I did).

While I appreciate that people want to avoid introducing bacteria into their canned food, I also think our fear-based societal inclinations prohibit us from doing a lot of perfectly safe activities. Back in the day, people didn’t even bother with waterbathing or pressure canning! My grandma still makes shelf-stable apple butter without putting it through a waterbath, and although I personally take that extra step, she has never killed or made a single member of her family sick using this method. My mom says she has a two-year-old jar of that apple butter in her pantry, and at Christmas I won’t hesitate to open it up and spread it on a piece of toast. And if there happens to be mold on the top of it, well… that’s a bummer, but it’s easy to spot and we won’t eat it.

Use your eyes and your nose. If it looks good and smells good, it’s good. I recently invented the statistic that you’re more likely to die from a shark attack than botulism. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t go in the ocean for fear of sharks, then maybe canning isn’t for you. But for the rest of you, food preservation is a fun, easy, and relatively risk-free way to keep the flavors of summer alive in the winter months.

canning class 2

How to remember the good

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is one of my favorite authors; I could read Cat’s Cradle once a year. A lot of what he wrote sticks with me, popping into my head on a near-daily basis. (If you’re the same, maybe we belong to the same karass?)

In 1997,  a truly beautiful graduation speech was falsely attributed to Vonnegut. It was actually a newspaper column written by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, in which she wrote the dream speech she would give if invited to do so.

Even though Vonnegut didn’t write it or say it, it’s a lovely urban legend. Plus, Schmich gives excellent advice; advice that pops into my head even more often than Vonnegut.

You can read the speech here.

In my life, I have magically been able to follow one particular piece of that advice: “Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.” Here’s how I do it, Ms. Schmich.

First, I have a terrible memory and – more importantly – I forgive easily, so forgetting insults is (fairly) easy. I also realized from a young age that remembering the bad is a useless and depressing use of memory space.

To remember the compliments, I keep a journal. Every time someone says something that I want to remember, I write it down. I started it when someone said, “Everyone needs an Elizabeth.” I was so touched by it that I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget.

Here are some of my other favorites:

  • “It is difficult to adequately express, in an email, how impressed I am with your efficiency, professionalism, and positive attitude.”
  • “You are at the core of sisterhood, and everything it represents.”
  • “You’re smart and bold and generous. Most people who are smart and bold aren’t generous. It’s a rare combination.”
  • “I’m so grateful for you help, and the dignity with which you helped me. Nothing is worse than needing help and being humiliated by it.”
  • “Your thoughts are kind and your words eloquent, as usual.”
  • “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a domestic goddess?”
  • “You’ve been such a guiding light for me… you bring me so much joy, and I think you’re the cats meow, or pajamas, or whatever else gets blamed on the cat.”

Each entry includes what was said, who said it, and the context (where we were, whether it was written or verbal, etc). Reading this journal is like taking a therapeutic walk through the past – it instantly transports me to that moment in time, with the compliment representing some larger event that also makes me feel good about myself.

I don’t have it all figured out. I screw up all the time. I yell at my incredible boyfriend for using too much water when he washes the dishes. I’m bossy. Sometimes I’m lazy. But my compliment journal reminds me, in my darkest moments, how worthy I am.

And guess what? You are, too.

cheers

My Ukiah Anniversary and Summer Recap

Today is my one-year anniversary of being in Ukiah, and specifically of living in our cozy little house downtown (I spent last summer in Redwood Valley). I’m still just as in love with Ukiah and Mendocino county as the day I discovered this magical place.

It’s hard to believe an entire year has passed, but when I look back at all that has happened I can see that I packed a lot in to the last 12 months. Specifically, SO MANY THINGS HAPPENED THIS SUMMER. I didn’t get around to blogging about them all, so here’s a quick digest of the things I missed.

Concert in the Park Series

Every year, Ukiah hosts the most incredible concert series – six free shows in Todd Grove Park performed by outstanding groups. The entire community comes from near and far to pull up some grass, drink wine and beer, eat food, and dance our pants off. I went to five of the six concerts, missing just one because I was in Seattle. We always had a blanket, a cooler, and a good group of friends, and one day we even set up croquet. Good times.

CitP

Final Concert in the Park

Movies in the Park

Movies are shown at dusk at Alex Thomas Plaza throughout the summer, which is RIGHT by our house. I only went to one, and I went alone, but it was awesome: they showed The Sandlot, which never gets old. Just one of many examples of the great and FREE things to do all summer in Ukiah.

BBQS

There were a lot of them. We had at least one. I think Susan had two or three, as did Addison and Caitlin, the original Miles (for Natalie’s going-away party… sad), young Miles and Zach, one at our community garden, and probably another one or twelve I’m forgetting. I ate a lot of meat and drank a lot of summer bounce at these puppies.

Susan BBQ

M and Z BBQ

Friday Nights at Rivino

Every Friday night, Rivino – a local winery – has live (and free!) music in their beautiful outdoor setting. The wine is priced right, you can bring a picnic, and the misters saved us from many a sweaty night. Fridays at Rivino became a pretty standard way to kick off the summer weekends; I can always reliably find a friendly face or two if I decided to go at the last minute. These concerts last until the rains start in October, so you still have a chance to go!

Rivino friends

Rivino view

A Day at Lake Sonoma

One day in July, Susan and I decided to have an adventure. We piled into my car and drove south, stopping in Cloverdale long enough to take pictures with this strange street sculpture and get some treasures at the Methodist thrift store.

Susan Cloverdale

From there we continued on to Lake Sonoma. Neither of us had ever been and we were surprised to see on a map just how big it is. It was formed by flooding the narrow valleys between mountains, so it has tons of fingers and very steep edges. Despite its size, we figured we’d wing it.

Our first stop was the marina to rent kayaks, but after waiting 20 minutes for someone to even acknowledge us we talked ourselves out of it – there was strong wind and not many good, accessible beaches within kayak distance, plus we didn’t have waterproof bags to take with us. We’ll just find a little private beach to chill, we thought.

Turns out, no such beach exists! After many false starts, including about a mile of up-and-down walking in two different locations laden with all our gear, we threw in the towel and headed back to the public beach. There are NO other beaches accessible by roads; you have to take a boat to them, which to me seemed very elitist. (Note: if we had been on the other side of the lake apparently we could have gone to Yorty beach, which is supposed to be cool. Next time…)

Susan Lake Sonoma

Getting frustrated, but in good spirits

Eli Lake Sonoma

We were a scene straight out of the 70s in our getups

We hung out at the public beach for awhile, which was like a highway for boats and didn’t have a pleasant view or a particularly nice place to sit. After a picnic, a swim, and a sunbathe, we packed it in and headed north to a very private and wonderful river spot.

We never got upset and laughed through the whole day. It was memorable to say the least (especially since I think it was partially the lake’s fault that led to my head-to-toe hives a few days later).

Whirlwind Seattleite Invasion

My fashion designer friend Casey and his friend Katy went on a six-day kamikaze road trip to Los Angeles to buy fabric. They stopped over in Ukiah on the way down, catching the end of the final Concert in the Park after 13 hours in the car. On their way back from LA they stopped again, this time for a leisurely 36 hours. We draped ourselves in their luxurious fabric, went wine tasting at Barra, and swam at the sweet river spot that Susan and I found on that fateful Lake Sonoma day.

Casey and Katy

Casey and Katy river

No hives this time, but unfortunately the yellow jackets found us and cut our beach time short.

They were so much fun to have and I wish they could have stayed longer!

Whirlwind Seattleite Invasion, Part II

My friend Robyn and her boyfriend Gus came for a wine country and San Francisco weekend, and spent about eight hours enjoying what Mendocino has to offer. We went wine tasting at Rivino (I was there three times that week), and then spent several hours by a friend’s pool before eating tacos at Chavez Market and hitting a surprise birthday party. I gave them a driving tour of Ukiah and they agreed – of course – that it’s the cutest town ever. Hopefully next time they stay long enough for me to show them some other local gems like Anderson Valley and Montgomery Woods.

RB and Gus

En Fin, and Cucumbers

I did a lot of other things but I mostly blogged about them, I think (plus I have a few pending blogs about specific events, specifically the Kinetic Carnivale and Sharing the Bounty). If you remember anything else awesome we did that I’ve left out, please let me know.

This summer has been a pleasure from start to finish, but I’m ready for the fall to set in. Specifically, I’m ready to stop harvesting cucumbers… Carson tells me I can pull the plants but but they’re still so productive it seems like a crime. If you live near Ukiah, PLEASE COME GET CUCUMBERS. They are the tastiest and most beautiful cukes I have ever grown.

Getting it done: world’s easiest tomato sauce

When I research recipes for preserving food, I find so many refined options. And by refined, I mean complicated. They call for a long list of ingredients and a zillion steps. While I appreciate that these exist, and that people exist who like to make them (people that I wish would feed me their delicious creations), I’m just not that kind of cook. I like to take 50 lbs of tomatoes and turn it into 10 quarts of sauce in 2 hours.

I believe that these complex recipes overwhelm many people, making them feel like they couldn’t possibly put up cans of food worth eating. To those people, I have some refreshing news: NONE OF THAT COMPLEXITY MATTERS. Sure, you still have to follow the rules to safely preserve the food, but what’s inside those jars doesn’t have to take hours to prepare.

Ingredient lists are suggestions at best. I’m the queen of omissions and substitutions. For canning you need to make sure that your acid content is right, but otherwise, pretty much nothing matters.

If you look up recipes for tomato sauce right now, you’ll mostly find people telling you to core the tomatoes, finely chop them, continually mash the hell out of them while they boil, and  then de-seed and skin them by pressing them through a fine mesh sieve. Um, what? No.

Here’s how I make my tomato sauce, and it is not any way inferior to those more complex recipes. In fact, it might even be better. Plus, you get way more volume since you aren’t removing all the seeds and skins.

tomatoes

A lug of tomatoes (about 30 lbs) from the “fruit group,” a local set-up that sells almost-totally-organic fruit and tomatoes at wholesale prices every week throughout the summer. This box cost me $20.

Easy Tomato Sauce

Ingredients

  • Tomatoes! As many as you have, whatever kind you have (saucing/paste tomatoes will have less water and will take less time to cook)
  • Garlic!
  • Herbs! Whatever you have on hand (fresh or dried oregano, basil, rosemary, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper)
  • If canning, lemon juice or citric acid

Preparation

Wash your tomatoes and cut them in half. Or don’t; whatever. If you have particularly juicy tomatoes, you can squeeze out some of their guts. Put them into a food processor or blender. That’s right – raw tomatoes, skins and seeds and all. I don’t core them or even cut off the stem scars.

Add garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and herbs if you want them incorporated. Blend to your heart’s desire, leaving it as chunky or getting it as smooth as you want.

NOTE: Too much garlic can affect the pH, so use no more than 2 whole cloves per blender.

Depending on how many tomatoes you have, you will probably have to do this in several rounds. Dump the blended sauce into a large pot (the wider the better; more surface area is good) and turn the heat to medium. If you don’t want your herbs blended, add them now.

Bring the sauce to a boil and then turn it down to a strong simmer. Give it a good stir and cover it with a splatter guard, but NOT a lid. You’re cooking your sauce down. It’s very important that you don’t stir the sauce too much, or else you’ll just mix all the water that rose to the surface back into the sauce.

Stir occasionally to make sure the bottom isn’t burning (it won’t if you have it at a true simmer), maybe once every 10 or 15 minutes. How long your sauce has to cook will depend on how much water your tomatoes had and how thick you like it; 25 lbs usually takes me about an hour. I leave mine on the watery side, knowing I’ll cook it down a little more when I open the jar. If you’re doing a LOT of sauce, you can pour it in one blender at a time, let it cook down, then pour more in on top.

Meanwhile, prepare some pint and/or quart jars. I like to put whole sprigs of rosemary and/or basil in mine.

Taste your sauce; add more herbs or spices if you want to. Once your sauce is tasting just how you want it, ladle it into the clean jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space.

You can freeze this now and be done, or you can process it in a waterbath to be shelf-stable.

If canning, THIS IS THE ONLY TRULY CRUCIAL STEP: you need to make this acidic enough so it won’t breed bacteria. For pints, add 1 TBSP lemon juice or 1/4 TSP citric acid to each jar; for quarts, add 2 TBSP lemon juice or 1/2 TSP citric acid.

Pints need 35 minutes in a waterbath, and quarts need 45. If you aren’t an experienced canner, there are tons of how-to guides out there. I like Ball’s no-nonsense approach.

Although the process itself does take awhile, you can do other things while the sauce cooks down and the jars process.

Even with all those skins and seeds, you end up with gorgeous and tasty tomato sauce. And guess what? It’s more nutritious, too. HOLLER.

sauce

A pint of easy tomato sauce with a whole branch of basil.

Labor Day weekend, Paul Bunyan style

For Labor Day weekend, I was invited to Sarah’s birthday dinner (where I drank a decent amount of wine and yes, licked my plate clean). She wrote about it here, and I can only add that it was a joy and an honor to participate. Also, Mendo Bistro blew me away. I will definitely be going back.

Labor Day weekend in Fort Bragg = Paul Bunyan Days. Last year I went with Sara (who has been toughing it out in Alaska all summer) and Whitney. We had a BLAST, even though I embarrassed the hell out of myself by taking a picture with Smokey (the) Bear and proudly exclaiming that my boyfriend was CalFire, only to discover that they all knew him (and his ex…). At the time we had barely been together for 3 months, and hadn’t seen each other in a month due to all those dang fires. I was sweating bullets that he’d be mad or embarrassed too, but it was his first of many opportunities to prove how good natured he truly is. It might have been the final push I needed to fall 100% in love with him (awww).

Paul Bunyan 2012

Me in 2012, before I realized just how tiny this county is (despite its massive square mileage).

Anyhoo, this year I went with Whitney and we met up with Sarah and her crew just in time to catch the last of the axe throwing competition. They put a beer in the center of the target, so bulls-eye hits are especially explosive. After that we watched sawing, chopping, choker races, and kids’ pillow fighting. There’s a girl who started competing when she was 12, and her dad has been named the all-around winner something like five or six times. I recognized a lot of the faces from last year. Also like last year, they announced that the event is “environmentally friendly” and asked us to conserve resources and recycle. I LOVE THIS EVENT AND THIS COUNTY SO MUCH.

axe throwing

 

pillow fight

Eli and Paul

I avoided Smokey this year…