Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seriously Eating

I have a new secret passion - Serious Eats.  Seriously, check it out.  Sign up for their daily emails.  Their great recipes always come with thought-provoking history, details of trials and errors, and some zippy discussion.  I'm passionately addicted. 

Don't you hate it when someone swears the recipe they're sharing with you is the best recipe ever, and when you make it, it tastes like the bottom of a dirty pan?  What a waste of time, and how can you ever trust that person again?  About anything?  No worries here.

Their treatise on chicken stock - pure gold.   Love the way they get down in the weeds with the sizes of the aromatics (read the recipe, I'm not  your dictionary) the toast of the chicken, and which tasty parts (and unsavory parts - I am so not using the feet!) make the most deliciousness.  
Having had some epic fails in the chicken stock department (too much celery, not enough chicken flavor, tasted like muddy boots) I am soooooooo happy they spent weeks - and millions - demystifying all the conflicting advice.  

This is from their discussion of the very best ever slow cooked tomato sauce for pasta.  
I can't wait to make it, and I completely agree about cooking with olive oil.  Plus, if you have read the book 'The Big Fat Surprise', you will know that vegetable oils are poison (olives are a fruit.  Pickypants.)  

So here's what they have to say about cooking with olive oil: "Some folks will tell you that you should never cook with extra-virgin olive oil, as it ruins its flavor. Poppycock!

"Yes it's true that some of its flavors will break down. But then again, a neutral oil like canola or vegetable has pretty much zero flavor to begin with. You do the math. Or let me just do it for you: A Lot - Some > None. Sauces made with good olive oil will have noticeably better flavor than those made with neutral oil (of course it doesn't hurt to drizzle some fresh olive oil in at the end as well).

"Texture-wise, fat adds a rich, mouth-coating feel to a sauce, both when it's broken out of the sauce on its own, and when it is emulsified with the sauce's liquid phase, making the whole thing creamier.

"Olive oil on its own does a decent job of this. But here's a trick:

"Add a bit of butter in there as well. Butterfat emulsifies much more easily with liquids, and it adds a creamy, fresh flavor to the mix."

See what I mean about the zippy discussion?  And about getting down in the weeds?  As soon as I'm able to stand I am so making this.  Come for dinner.  Bring your appetite.   

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Clear And Present Danger

Our dog Ally takes her responsibilities very seriously.  Apparently she has decided she is responsible for the safety of the republic, said republic being not only our house and garden, but the street as well.

A passing raccoon or skunk in search of a snack, a neighbor walking his dog, all are announced with teeth-jarring barks.  A normally calm person would soon be reaching for the Valium.  I am not a normally calm person.  Fortunately I also am not a Valium fan.

As these events often occur late at night (the neighbor's dog) or in the wee hours of the morning (the skunks and raccoons) sleep has become a precious thing, much interrupted.  Coffee, once a pleasure, has become a necessary precursor to prying our eyes open.  The sort of sleep that deals with knitting up that raveled sleeve of care?  Our sleeves are in tatters.

During the day it's the squirrels and birds that get her attention.  Pray that you are not holding anything sharp, or anything liquid, when she sounds the alarm.  We have several stains on the kitchen rug, now fading, and a good number of nicks and dents in the counters (and our hands) that testify to the quality and volume of her bark.

She is part Basenji, and if you are a dog person then you know the African Basenji is a barkless dog.  Apparently Ally didn't get the memo.  During the day as you are trying to get  bit of work done, the dry cleaning delivery is announced with several minutes of sharp crisp barking, made worse by the delivery person trying to make friends with the dog thru the door.  The same chorus announces the arrival of the mail, the neighbor children returning from school, the neighbor's gardener, and anyone driving by.  She seems to take special offense at the odd real estate agent trolling the cul-de-sac.  

A few evenings ago just before dusk Ally was barking like the Visigoths were thundering down the street, so I opened the front door to look for Visigoths and she shot out between my legs, disappearing around the corner of the house while barking like a madman.  There was a brief scuffling sound, after which she parked herself at the bottom of a big tulip tree, and proceeded to try to wake the dead.  

Wally looked up into the tree and said "Oh, of course."  
Two young raccoons, more pissed off than scared, and rather pleased at Ally's frustration.  We finally put her in the house and shut the door so they could climb down and be on their merry way.  I'm sure we'll be hearing more from them later, probably very late at night.

I know Ally is disappointed in our sense of smell.  We are disappointed in the length of her memory - the command "Quiet!" does not seem to be in her vocabulary.  The fact that the same skunk ambled by just a few minutes ago does not seem to lodge in her memory.  Or maybe she is worried we are unaware of the grave danger posed by the passing skunk...or realtor.

We finally bought a bark collar, one that gives her a gentle shock when she barks. (I tried it - it feels like the pinch your mother gave you as a child when you misbehaved in public).  When we (she) first took it for a test drive, there was a loud bark, a surprised little yip, then just quiet grumbling.  Lots of quiet grumbling.  I swear she can talk.  The only disadvantage of the collar, apart from the humiliation Ally lets us know she is suffering, is that she cannot bark to be let in.  There was one afternoon when she was not in her usual place by my side, and when I went in search I found her patiently standing by the back door.  The look of reproach she gave me was eloquent, and she now wears the collar only when there is an unusual amount of activity in the neighborhood.  

She is the most intelligent and engaging dog we have ever had.  She does not suffer fools gladly.  She is an excellent judge of character.  She has never bitten a stranger.  She only snaps at people who are overly familiar, and only growls at people who are insincere, or not trustworthy, or mean.  I concur with her on all points.  I have, on more than one occasion, wanted to snap at someone who took my arm against my wishes, and leaned in for unwanted and unwarranted confidences.  I have more than once wanted to growl at the shallow, the insincere, the duplicitous.  Instead I have plastered a smile on my face and said "How do you do?" or something equally inane.

Ally may be on to something.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Its The Pits

Well,  congratulate me, because I have reached a new fashion low.  No, I'm not wearing Juicy Couture (the person who thought up that name - and that slutty look - should be shot).  No, I do still have standards, reduced though they may be.

Nope - I now choose my outfit based on what doesn't chafe my pits.  Don't laugh - have you ever been on crutches?  In a lace dress?  Seemed like a good idea at the time, the dress was nice and loose, and easy to get on over this ginormous black boot.  No struggling to get pants on without bumping the pin in my toe that I swear feels like it goes all the way up to my spine.  

But oh that lace.  Sort of like wearing a cheese grater. 

It looked elegant, at least until my armpits began to glow like hot coals.  Come to think of it, that's what they feel like...

I'm afraid it will take weeks for the damage to heal. So! no tank tops, no underwire bras (those crutches really get around).  No rough seams, no ribbon edges. And no silk blouses either, they would be reduced to shreds in minutes. 

Just the softest tee shirts.  Well washed, well worn. Well loved.  And especially well loved now that I really need them.   I'll figure out the bottom half later, or maybe I'll just stay in bed.

So what's in your closet? 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Plant It Now

I just gave a talk on planting - where I live, in the SF Bay Area, this is prime planting time.  And on planting responsibly, because we are having a drought.  

People say we're in the middle of a drought, but how would they know?  I'm hoping we're at the end of the drought, and for a while the weather prognosticators were predicting a very wet winter, but we haven't heard much from them since they said "Um, maybe not..." a few months ago.  I realize it's a tough job, but seriously?  if you can't do it, don't sign up.  And if you're not sure, say so.  Although a career based on "Really, we're just guessing," or "This is what the dartboard/ouija board said" is perhaps a career with a tenuous future.  Or not...what does the dartboard say?

But back to the garden:
Plant things that need less water, please.  Get them established now, while the soil is warm (better root growth!) and the days are shorter (not so drying! less watering needed!)  And really, you know that even things that are drought tolerant need water to get established, right?   Daily water if it's hot, more often if it's stinkin' hot, less if it's cool.  The best watering guide is your finger: stick it in the soil up to the first knuckle.  If it's dry, water.  If it's wet, don't.  And if this grosses you out, you should get another hobby.  Or obsession.  Maybe needlepoint, because if this grosses you out, you are so not a gardener.

Another recommendation: don't plant a bunch of water-sucking annuals.  Of course if you believe in Murphy's Law, and you find your drought-tolerant cyclamen rotting in a puddle of water in January, you can be upset with me, and rue the unplanted pansies.  Or you can consider the cyclamen an offering to the rain Gods and be thankful the drought is over - for now.  

My friend whose roof will be off all winter says she's fine either way - either it doesn't rain until the new roof is on, and things stay snug and dry, or it does rain, and she is willing to sacrifice her hardwood floors and plaster walls for her garden.  For all of our gardens.  

So back to planting annuals: think about where you'll actually see them  - like just outside your kitchen window.  Or right next to the door you come in when you come home.  (Note: this would be a problem for me - I would have to plant flowers on the refrigerator in the garage.)  And don't plant annuals along the driveway if you don't walk down the driveway, or you can't see it from inside the house.  Just sweeping past with the headlights  once a day does not justify all that water.  

Remember that the color you can see at night - the only color - is white.  But yellow is so cheery on a gloomy winter day I always put some yellow pansies or primrose outside the kitchen window.  And for those of you who are snarking that white is not really a color, off to the needlepoint store with you.

Plant a pot or two of annuals by the front door - if you use the front door.  Or of you're planning a party.  You can ignore the water rules in a few pots.  Plant the annuals with something perennial and spiky, and something that will spill out of the pot.  Because you know when you're planting a pot, you're thinking "Thriller, Filler, Spiller", right?  After contemplation, if this does not make sense to you, see the note above about taking up needlepoint.

This is also the best time to plant perennials that are fragrant directly into the (well amended) soil in the garden.  Sweet Box (sarcococca ruscifolia or s. humilis) in the shade next to a door, or under a bedroom window, will waft soft clouds of honeysuckle fragrance all winter, and it is brilliant in a flower arrangement.  It lasts forever and smells heavenly, and no one expects that divine fragrance to be coming from such a mild-mannered plant.  I try to have a few sprigs in a vase by my bed.  I love waking up to the smell of the garden.

Daphnes are great - the variegated forms are my favorites, because they light up the shadiest corner.   Try Sweet Olive (osmanthus fragrans) in a sunnier spot - it smells like the most divine freesia, starting now and blooming off and on thru the year.  I have one osmanthus by the pool that blooms mostly in summer, and one by the gate that blooms mostly in fall and winter.  No idea why.  But never thump a free melon.

And if, like me, you've let some of the thirstier plants die this summer, now is the time to replace them with less thirsty cousins.  My hydrangeas had a really tough time, they spent most of the summer with leaves drooping limply.  I'm giving them to a friend who has springs on her property, and I'm putting in sweet box, and camellias (surprisingly tough) and some topiary boxwood just for fun. 

Sloat Garden Center in Danville is a great resource for less thirsty plants.  So is Orchard Nursery in Lafayette.  Passionate knowledgeable staff, beautiful displays - where are my keys?  I'm off to look for inspiration.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

To Do In The Garden - October

Okay - courtesy of Dustin and the other wonderful folks at Sloat Nursery in Danville, here's what you should be doing in the garden this month.  And check out the cool pumpkins and squashes they have for sale!  No watering required.  

(And if you sign up for their e-newsletter, all this info  - and more! will appear in your inbox.  Lucky you.)

Sloat's Bay Area Gardening Guide: October


  • Plant it Now! Fall is the best time to plant foxglove, canterbury bells and other biennials. Plant cyclamen in October/early November. It’s also a great time to plant ground covers and sweet peas.
  • Think fall & winter color: Violas and pansies are perfect for creating mass color in containers or flowerbeds. Available in a variety of hues, they are a terrific ground cover for spring bulbs.
  • For a hardy alternative, consider planting ornamental grasses. Grasses require little upkeep and can create a beautiful screening effect against the house or fence.
  • Fall is for planting! Get container shrubs, perennials and trees into the ground this month. Winter rains will help develop a strong root system.
  • Decorate for fall: We have ornamental kale, mums, iceland poppies, snapdragons, stock and ornamental grasses for waves of autumnal color. Also, stop by for pumpkins, then carve something ghoulish and enter it in our Pumpkin Carving Contest.
  • Select and plant maples for fall color (now is the time to see fall color).
  • Select bulbs for spring bloom and winter forcing. Begin chilling bulbs that need an artificial winter: Tulips, freesia, crocus & hyacinth need 4–6 weeks of refrigeration before planting.


  • Top-dress perennial beds, azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons with Sloat Forest Mulch Plus and feed with 0-10-10 fertilizer monthly until bloom (E.B. Stone Organics).
  • Feed spring blooming shrubs with 0-10-10 fertilizer. Feed citrus with Maxsea.


  • Prepare planting beds for winter. Clear weeds and rocks. Till soil and add soil amendments.
  • Divide the roots and rhizomes of perennials such as agapanthus, yarrow and iris.
  • Lightly prune Japanese maples while still in leaf.
  • It’s time to fill your bird feeders for winter. You can also try a suet feeder!


shutterstock_23358712October & November are truly the most advantageous months of the year to get perennials, trees, vines, shrubs and cool season vegetables into the ground. Planting now will allow roots to become well established for much stronger, more vigorous plants come springtime. Fall and winter rains mean nature does the weekly watering for you, plus most gardeners see fewer pest and disease problems in the fall. 

REMINDER: Plant bulbs this fall and enjoy a festival of color next spring!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Advice From A Friend

Michael at Rakestraw Books in Danville has the best sayings.  I made him write this one down.  

Words to live by.  Words to remember.  And speaking of words, get a copy of The Day The Crayons Quit, and of This Book Has No Pictures.  From Michael, please - if you don't shop at the local stores, pretty soon there won't be any local stores.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chrono Bike

If you're in Lucca you really should rent a bike and head for the countryside.  It is in the most beautiful part of Italy - take it from someone who has spent a lot of time biking around Italy.  And it's a bike mad town - even the grocery store has a bike in the window.
And if you're going to rent a bike, there's only one place:  Chrono Bikes.  
Right near the Porto San Pietro, they have fabulous Pinarello bikes, outfitted with Campy or Shimano.  If you're a biker, you know what I'm talking about.  If you're not a biker, take my word for it - these are great bikes.  Normally you can't rent bikes of this quality.  If you just want a cruiser to ride around the medieval  town (no cars allowed, altho there seem to be some anyway) they rent those too.  Altho not this fizzy polka dot model....if I were in the market for a town bike, this would be it.  So retro.
I know the bikes are fabulous because I spent the last week riding one, and there was a time (okay, more than one) when I came into a corner a little hot, and I was sure I would lay the bike down, and be listening to my helmet buzzing across the pavement.  Didn't happen.  Not because of my skill, because the bike stuck to the road.  Great bike.  Scared the pee out of me, but that bike saved my bacon.

The guy who owns the store, Paladino, can just look at you and know what size bike you need and exactly how high the seat should be.  

Gets it right first time.  Our friend Michael accidentally got on Paladino's bike instead of the one Paladino had set up for him.  I should tell you that Paladino is a lot taller than Michael, and Michael came back from his test drive saying "Well, either we have to lower the seat, or I'll have to cut off some of my anatomy..."

Paladino cracked up.  So did we.  Got Michael on his own (much shorter) bike, and we were off.

Here is a true fact about biking in Italy:  You Will Get Lost.  

You will have a lovely map, with the names of lots of small towns   You will stop at an intersection to look at the road signs pointing to lots of other small towns.  Unfortunately the towns on your map and the towns on the roadsigns are not even remotely related.  

And none of the street names are on the map, but that's okay because there are very few street signs unless you're inside the walls of  Lucca.  So what.  Wing it.  I promise you'll have a great adventure. 

No matter which way you go the scenery will be spectacular.  
Just try to stay off the Autostrada.  If there's a toll booth, Do Not Take That Road.  Aim for the smallest roads you can find.  They're usually going uphill, but that's where the beautiful small towns are, unspoiled by tourists (so far).
There is something called the Hills of Lucca  and Montecarlo Wine Route - if you're in a car take it.  If you're on a bike, follow the route Paladino has marked on your map...if you can.
Follow these signs.  Usually uphill.  
On teensy roads with no cars I did surprise one goat, but he surprised me more.  And no, this is not the goat.  Be nice.

Because Lucca has no big hotels, no fizzy resorts, the countryside around Lucca isn't overrun by tourists.  So the little towns have real cafes for real people, not souvenir stands full of plastic Pinocchios and postcards, and busloads of tourists.  Just real people living real lives.
We ride into a tiny town just as the church bells are ringing and people are walking to church, as they have for hundreds of years (okay, okay, not these exact people, their ancestors.  Point taken.)

They were ringing real bells in an old stone tower, not the recordings you get in the touristy areas.  It's near Sant'Andrea in Compito.  I know that compito is homework - is she the patron saint of homework?   And has this patron saint thing gotten out of hand?

We ride thru San Quirico, and joke that he must have been the patron saint of nerds.  Quirico, quirky...

Downhill from the church there is a babbling brook:
with an old stone bridge spanning it - just wide enough for two oxcarts to pass. 
The road across the bridge goes nowhere.  We don't care - we are exploring.

Here is another true fact about biking in Italy - if you are passed by some guys who look like they're training for the Tour De France, you're on the right road.  We got passed a lot.  We tried to follow a lot of really fast riders.  And eventually, hot, sweaty and happy,  we made it home.
If you're not up for a road ride, you can ride the 3 mile loop on the top of the walls.  Everyone else does, two wheels:
or four - with two steering wheels - yipes!  Who's driving?
Dads with kids perched on tiny plastic seats - no seat belts.  no helmets...and one hand is clearly busy...usually the other hand is holding a cel phone.  No idea how they do it.  But it all works.
Even the florist delivers by bike.

Go.  Stay in Lucca.  Rent a bike from Chrono and ride.  Take some friends.  We can't wait to go back.  Thank you Mike and Carolyn for the inspiration, for finding the apartment.  Thank you Paladino for the great bikes.  We had a blast.