Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Strawberries with the volume turned up

"Have you ever tasted a strawberry right off the vine, warm from the sun?" asked my friend Leslie, mother of The Three Pinks. She had been berry picking in Brentwood. (I had been at the dentist. Who wants to trade places?)

Yes, I have tasted strawberries right off the vine. I grow strawberries. My mother grew strawberries, and my grandmother. But not these strawberries. Not even close. 
The taste is somewhere between those tiny fraise de bois (which can be a but mushy, tho food snobs will never admit it) and a really great California grown strawberry. Strawberry with the volume turned up.

I don't know its name, but I will. Oh yes I will. I rarely succumb to the must-have plant, but one taste and I'm on a mission.  She also brought cherries...

When I asked the cultivar name, she said "crack." I think it's actually a coral cherry, but the strawberry? definitely crack. Must have more....

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Read the Directions

I bought these beautiful canisters from Chef's Catalogue, one of my favorite places for Kitchen stuff.
I used to be a loyal Williams-Sonoma customer; they had the best return policy: If you're not happy, bring it back. Period. No hassle, no recriminations.

No more. Now if something they sell breaks, you have to take it up with the manufacturer. At their prices? Are they kidding? If you own WIlliams-Sonoma stock, sell it now.  It's not the company I knew and loved. I know Chuck Williams had to retire sometime but boy do I miss him.

So anyway, the canisters: unpacking them they were very dusty. And being the slightly compulsive person I am (okay, more than slightly. Happy now?) (And have you checked your compulsive quotient lately?) I wash everything before I use it.  I looked at the bottoms: "dishwasher safe" so in they went. When they went in they were labeled - Flour, Sugar, Brown Sugar. When they came out, one had an F - the rest were naked. So I went back to the website, and yup - "Hand wash." Oops.

At first I was upset, and I felt like an idiot. Then I thought "it's my chance to label them in whatever language I choose. Italian, Lithuanian, French..."

I've been having a blast playing with typestyles. And language translators. Shall I label the smallest canister Rudojo Cukraus? or Zucchero di Canna? Cassonade? or with a skull and crossbones? And I can change the labels at will, thanks to an overzealous dishwasher.

Thank you mommy for teaching me to look for the opportunity in every disaster. And thank you Chef's Catalogue for canisters that are actually big enough to be useful. Cookies, anyone?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thirty one jelly

Thirty one jars of jelly. Apple jelly with a little pomegranate thrown in for color (so it doesn't look like a urine sample). Eight jars at a time, because that's all the recipe makes, and because that's what fits in my water bath. 
My windows are still steamed up.
It was for a bridal shower - fall wedding; apple theme...

It's hot work and sooooooo much more fun to do with someone. Hi Cathy!
Cathy has incredible style and an eye for the details. Her parties are legendary - more later. And as long as we were cooking, why not carrot cupcakes for a friend who'd just had surgery?
So! The party: Gorgeous flowers...
...on every surface.
Delicious food, cool way of serving (I plan to steal this idea), happy tables with garden flowers. So spring.
Piles of presents for the bride-to-be...
...and a quiz. Do you know what a bain-marie is? A tagine? 

And could you identify these herbs and spices?

Mary Mac guessed hemlock  - and cannabis. Nope, all legal. Tasting and smelling helped, but even the person who put this together (a secret that will go with me to my grave - not soon I hope) mis-named a few. Safety tip: If you're going to taste the Chipotle chili, take a tiny taste. I can still see Stevie's face as she realized what she'd put in her mouth. 

I thought we were too old for games. Never! I felt like a little kid at a really fun birthday party. Girlfriends are the Best! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Bad

Down to the forties at night. Barely breaking sixty during the day. Rain. Drizzle. A spectacular sunset, then more rain. Come on, you say, this is May.  In California.  What's going on?

It's my fault. Remember the 90 degree days a week and a half ago? My fault too.

I planted tomatoes and melons - both require heat. That's why it's cold and wet. Mother Nature is messing with me. You're just an innocent bystander - this is personal. And that heat wave? Just after I planted the tomatoes and melons from little tiny plugs (I grew the seeds on a heat mat) I went away for a week. (Hawaii. Took my mom for Mother's Day and yes we did have a good time thank you so much for asking).

I was not here to water. The seedlings should have dried up and died in that heat, but I had given them a good soaking and a 4 inch layer of mulch, so they were snug and happy, and just beginning to grow...

And that's when Mother Nature decided to teach me a lesson. In patience (wait for the soil to warm up), in the true nature of gardening (nothing ever turns out as you had planned and isn't that true in life too?) and so things got cold. Very cold. Happy snails and slugs (except when they come across the Sluggo, the pet-safe snail killer - take that! Mother Nature). But the tomatoes are unhappy. Very unhappy. As are the melons.

If I have to I will replant the melons; I saved some seed (see, M.N., I have been paying attention). and I will hope there is enough summer left for them to grow and set fruit. Last cold summer I got one distorted pumpkin and only a few full size tomatoes, altho the cherry tomatoes must have felt sorry for me, for they outdid themselves and gave me baskets full of sweet tasty fruit. Another good reason to plant cherry tomatoes - they need less heat.

But for now, I'm going inside to wait for the rain to stop. It's too cold out here. I will wait to plant beans until the soil is warmer (and the air) and hope it doesn't go from drippy cold (In May! In California!) to blasting heat. And if it does? I suppose there is a lesson in that too...when does this school of hard knocks get out?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stephen Saiz, this one's for you.

Stephen is a most wonderful hairdresser, artist, color genius. When first I sat in his chair, he fingered my hair with a frown.

"Well, what do you think?" I asked brightly.

"Oh, honey, your hair is very middle."


"Middle age, middle class..."

He was right. It's not anymore. Even my mom loves what Stephen does, and she has very high standards. And she hates hair color...but not mine. A few years ago Stephen cut my hair short, and all my friends said I looked ten years younger. SO I went back to Stephen and Said "If you shave it will I look 20 years younger?" He patiently explained that's not how it works. Can't blame me for trying.

Stephen is also one of the most gifted cooks I know. Some of my best recipes came from him. So Stephen, this one's for you.

When I walked into Lisa's house the smells made my knees weak. I wanted to sit down and weep, then head for the kitchen. Her mother was visiting from Chicago, her mother who grew up in Lucca and can cook up a storm...without a recipe in sight. This day it was zucchini soup. I am not a huge zucchini fan, I'm not a huge soup fan, but she handed me a bowl, steaming hot, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parmigiano....heaven. Maybe the best thing I've ever put in my mouth. And of course Maria Franceschini being the fabulous cook she is there was no recipe. Until now.

Maria Franceschini's Zucchini Soup - it will Change Your Life.

2 onions, finely diced
about 6 cloves of garlic, finely diced (okay I cheat and use a garlic press. Get over it.)
Olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan - I'm guessing 3 to 4 tablespoons or so...
7 small to medium zucchini, diced
about 2 cups chicken stock. Maria uses Knorr bullion cubes; I use Better Than Bullion. Reconstituted and hot please.
a big handful of fresh basil

Extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano Reggiano for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a stock pot, add the onions and garlic and gently saute  until soft but not brown, then add the zucchini and cook gently until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add enough chicken stock to just cover, and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Put a big handful of fresh basil in the blender, blend with the soup. Return to the stock pot and heat through.

Serve piping hot and topped with a drizzle of really good extra virgin olive oil and a handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. No substitutions.

Every time I make this soup I will hear Maria's voice and see her beautiful face. Thank you Maria Franceschini. I love you. And thank you Lisa for sharing your mom.

Friday, May 13, 2011

the newlywed, the nearly dead and the overfed

That's who visits Hawaii, according to a submarine driver I met. And I started thinking...

The newspapers are full of ads for sure-fire weight loss. If one of them worked don't you think we'd know it? So what's up? We are fatter than we were thirty years ago, yet there are more gyms, more weight loss ads, more sure-fire systems.

Here I look normal. In France I'm fat. In Hawaii I'm skinny. And it's economic. And cultural. There are not a lot of fat trophy wives, or upper east siders. But we all live with the same health consequences, no matter our beliefs.

I shop the edges of the locally owned market, avoiding the processed middle. I shop the farmer's market. I grow beans and peas, tomatoes and peaches, figs and lemons. I pay attention to what goes on my plate, and I still work avoid the unpronounceable, to fit into my jeans.

I hate Safeway, and when I see their aisles devoted to processed food I am overwhelmed by despair. Safeway will carry gourmet stuff, organic stuff, more choices when a competitor opens up nearby, but the minute they force the competitor out of business, it's back to few choices.

We have an obesity epidemic, and it's all about what you put in your mouth. High fructose corn syrup (check out the NY TImes article), the products (they are not food, they are products) with ingredients we cannot pronounce that masquerade as food. I've heard if we ate food from the middle ages we would die of food poisoning; if they ate our foods, the preservatives would kill them. Just another form of food poisoning, and we eat this stuff every day, and feed it to our families.

We vote with our dollars. If we don't shop at the local stores, but instead go to the big national chains to save a few cents, pretty soon we will have no choice. There will be no smaller local store, no one paying attention to what we want. Go to the Farmer's Market, go to Lunardi's. Vote with your dollars. Take time to eat real food, to touch and feel, to prepare. Real food is less expensive than processed, and there will be fewer preservatives in your body, less packaging in the landfills - and the taste difference! Try it for one week. I believe it will change your life, It may save your life.

It all starts with what you put in your mouth.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Animals at the table

My mom tell the story of my dad's cousins having a Very Important Person over for dinner, and finding out during dinner he was a bit of an ass. Mary Jean was of course as polite as could be, she wouldn't say macadam if she had a mouthful, but Ireta did not suffer fools gladly, and became more and more irritated as the evening wore on. When their dog was rubbing up against the guest, looking for handouts, he said "Say! I think this dog likes me!"

Ireta had had enough. "He should," she said, "You're eating off his plate."

The dinner ended rather abruptly, and that was the last time they saw him.

You know I like dogs more than I like most people, and I have a sign in my house that says "If you don't want hair on your clothes, stay off the furniture." But even I draw the line at the table. And cats. Disclaimer:

This Is Not My House.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Blue Spring

I have taken a major position in blue.
This is the iris that re-blooms - I have had it on my Thanksgiving table. But the year we had water rationing and I didn't feed (didn't want to have to keep all that new growth hydrated) it didn't re-bloom. So now I feed. Organic, E.B. Stone or Dr Earth please - feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants. 

It's not really this turquoise, but it's fragrant and spectacular.

There is a darker Tradescantia with lime green foliage - the lime makes the blue pop.

There is an Echium I got from Annie's Annuals hanging over the pool. She has seriously cool stuff, and she usually has an open house on Mother's Day. Check it out.

There is columbine from seeds given to me by dear Carol Read...

...and just when the blue seems too much there is a splash...

...of orange. This is Pat Austen, a David Austen rose. Like a splash of cool water for your eyes. Gertrude Jekyll, the fabulous English garden designer wrote about having a one-color garden, and how just a touch of the opposite color (on a color wheel, silly. You weren't paying attention in Art class, were you?) will make both colors more intense. But this is the height of spring, and even my mistakes look fabulous. I'll be digging them up later, and sweating and swearing. But not today. Today I'm breathless. It is too beautiful, cool and fresh. Go outside!