Monday, June 27, 2011


Hand pulled mozzarella. Stretched to order and served with gypsy peppers, pickled red onions, capers, and little cubes of fire-toasted bread, tasting of summer nights and bonfires. We ate at Corso in Berkeley last night, and I can still taste it. Of course we had to eat at the uncivilized hour of 5:30 because they are booked eons in advance. Every time I've tried to book a table it's been sold out or you can come at 9:15. I will have eaten the upholstery by then. I will be on my second dessert. At another restaurant. I don't do 9:15.

Insalata Caprese will never be the same. Next time I make it I'm adding capers, their salty crunchy burst of acid and caper-ness just the right counterpoint to the blandness of the mozzarella. And maybe I'll substitute slivers of roasted peppers for the tomatoes (which have been insipid in this cold year). Or maybe I'll use cherry tomatoes. And serve it on slices of fire-toasted bread, the true Tuscan crostini. I'm getting hungry.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chicken Tractor

When I first heard the phrase, I thought "This green thing has gone too far." I had visions of a weathered old green John Deere with faded yellow wheels and knobby tires, and a large hamster wheel where the engine should be, with a few chickens running like mad, spinning the hamster wheel and powering the tractor - at glacial speed. It's a great visual, but not quite right.
In fact a chicken tractor isn't nearly as complicated, although some are at least as picturesque.
It's a moveable chicken coop. One could argue that in hurricane country all chicken coops are moveable, but that's a different story. Or, as my friend Des says, "That's a whole 'nother Oprah."

Chickens are the new - what - SUV? third car garage? 4.5 GPA child?

I had a client twenty years ago who got chickens  - several dozen, just a day old, from the local feed store. He built a coop with aviary wire and stout posts, closed in on all sides with a sturdy top to keep the skunks and raccoons from snacking on his chickens. And his eggs.

At waist height he hung a row of nesting boxes and filled them with straw. He put a lock on the door, hung my seed-starting heat mat on the wall at floor level to keep the chicks warm, and when the chickens grew up he had the best compost I've ever seen. The cook would throw the kitchen scraps in the coop; the gardeners would dump in the lawn clippings. He would run a mower over branches and trimmings and dump them in too, and the chickens would eat any bugs, peck at everything else, scratch to turn the compost and poop on it adding nitrogen. It would eventually mat down into a cake a few inches thick, so every once in a while someone (usually me) would steer the wheelbarrow into the coop, shut the door (chickens spook easily, and they're not homing pigeons) and using a spade, scoop up the lovely rich composted layer and spread it in the garden. I have never seen roses so big, or raspberries so plump and juicy.

My sisters have had chickens. My mom spent a summer chicken-sitting (enunciate carefully) until the owls discovered the sleeping chickens - no roof, for they were in an old horse corral. Oops. All too soon, no chickens. But I have never had chickens of my own.

Five Reasons to Keep Chickens:
1. Compost. Lovely rich compost with no turning.  Big fat blowsy roses. Pumpkins! Melons! Tomatoes!

2. The sweet soft sounds chickens make when calm and scratching around together. They sound so social, it's what I imagine the farm ladies from my mother's childhood sounded like when they got together.

3. The eggs. Lovely fresh eggs.

4. Gathering the eggs still warm from under sleepy chickens softly chuckling and cooing.

5. Sharing with the neighbors. Especially the kids.

Five Reasons Not to Keep Chickens:
1. The smell. Buy some organic chicken manure at the nursery and you'll know what I'm talking about.

2. The not so sweet sounds they can make if you get a rooster (despite having paid extra for all girls). Apparently either chicken sexing is an inexact science or a minimum wage job. And what do you do with an unwanted rooster? (No, please, not over my fence! But I can give you a list of names...)

3. Our neighborhood has a rule against them. They also have rules against clotheslines, more than two pets, parking outside your garage, visible basketball hoops...none of which are enforced, so this isn't a biggie. But...

4. Sometimes chickens are not happy to see you, and not eager to have their hard work (ooh, bad pun) removed from under their warm feathers. So they assault you with their sharp beaks and flapping wings. My grandmother called them broody; I call them murderous nasty beasties. That's after I wash well and put on the band-aids.

5. The neighborhood kids. Can you imaging the highway they would wear through the lawn as they checked every few minutes to see if there was an egg? And brought all their friends within a fifty mile radius?

So maybe I won't get a chicken tractor after all. But at Alamo Hay and Grain there are the most astonishing chicks, yellow and green-black, all fluffy and quietly peeping away...tempting. we will see.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Slamming Into Summer

Last Sunday we rode our bikes up the mountain. In turtlenecks and windbreakers for the ride down. My hands were stiff with cold when we got home.

On Wednesday we went up the mountain again and came home drenched in sweat. 

It's official: It's summer. And it happened in about 48 hours. My poor garden is reeling: hydrangeas droop, lovely pale blue flowers tinged with green hang their heads. The dogwood is sad and floppy. Even the dog won't go out. Too hot to swim, 
...too hot to water. But some things are happy - the grapes...
...are tiny as pencil dots, but there are forests of them. Cross your fingers, we may finally have a decent crop.  The vines are flinging their arms all over the place, trying to catch you as you go up the stairs. Huge leaves are crying out to be made into dolmades. I confess I've pulled a few leaves to place under the Red Hawk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery - my current passion. It's fabulous with white wine on the patio before dinner. It's local and hand made, and it tastes a lot like Epoisses.  Smells a lot like it too. But wait until it cools off for cocktails and a stroll around the garden. Where you will find happy poppies...
and roses - 

finally not balling up and falling off in the damp. Just in time for the end of the first big bloom and the weeks-long wait for the re-blooming. Grrrr.

The Sally Holmes look moth-eaten...
...but the White Meidland, shoved in at the edge of the big oak's canopy and given little water and no care are gorgeous.
They looked awful in the front, dropped brown balls instead of opening into sparkling white roses. I put them here because I didn't have the guts to throw them out. I figured they would die on their own and save me the decision, and now they light up the dry shade. Silly me.

The campanula, the unfortunately named campanula poscharskyana, is climbing up the New Zealand flax. When it's over, when it has set seed, I will pull the spent stalks and throw handfuls of them where I want campanula next year. Very obliging plant. When the seed stalks begin to brown and look horrid I will give them a shake (to release as many seeds as possible) and throw them under the oak to compost. 
It's still blazing out there.
But in a few hours the lawn will be in shade, and I will make gin and tonics in mason jars, grab some Red Hawk and our Boules and head for the bottom lawn. 

It's summer. Finally.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Who's Old?

Dr Ali Hendi, a dermatologist, was talking about the new sunscreen standards tonight on The PBS News Hour, and he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Skin cancer use to be a disease of old people - we would see it in forty year olds. And now we're seeing it in young people." And I wondered: when did forty year olds became old people? I know a woman who is forty-two and considers herself barely out of her teens. Though that is true for her mentally, not so much in reality. Lose the bikini.

What's your take? When do things get more difficult? What does it mean to age...or to be in denial like my 42 year old acquaintance? What do you do differently? What do you fear? What are the best things about being older? I can think of I really don't give a rat's pajamas about a lot of stuff that would have tortured me in my youth.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Strawberry Rhubarb Preserves

'Cause it ain't jam. Stephen, of the fabulous Stephen Saiz Salon on Union Square in San Francisco is so excited about "putting things up." He says he's never done it before. A fantastic cook, it's probably the only thing he hasn't tried. If he invites you for dinner say yes. If he starts talking about something he made recently start taking notes.

 He loved the Strawberry Rhubarb Jam; I found it cloyingly sweet. So I tried again. By now you all know I can't leave well enough alone in the recipe least I'm not as bad as my Aunt Nini who thought "If a little fertilizer is good, a lot will be better" and fried her entire garden. 

So before the strawberry and rhubarb seasons are over, I tried again. With less sugar. Bliss. 

If you're an experienced jam maker you can skip to the recipe. But for Stephen, and everyone else who's not made real cooked jam before, here are the details.
Get the best ripe strawberries you can find. Think Farmer's Market, roadside stand. Not grocery store. 

Rinse the berries. Halve them if they are small, quarter them if they're ginormous. 
Before we go any further I should tell you this is easier with a few pieces of equipment. That's the bad news. The good news is they're not expensive or hard to find, and they don't take up much room when you're not using them. And they won't go out of fashion, unlike that pair of orange platform shoes I'm thinking about...

You will need:
A jar rack - to hold the jars when they go in a big pot full of boiling water. It's called a water bath. You probably already have a big pot - you can put a cake rack or a dish towel on the bottom to keep the glass jars from contact with the bottom of the pot, but it's a pain, and if you're gonna get serious (and you're gonna get serious, I promise) get the right tools.

A canning funnel. I use mine every day. Today I used it to put roasted nuts in a quart jar. I store everything in glass (you did read that post, right?) and trust me this makes putting things in jars a pleasure not a juggling act. Get one even if you're not gonna jam.

A pair of jar tongs, the funny things with the black handles. For lifting the finished jars out of the water bath. A few dish towels folded on the counter and you're on your way. You already have a ladle, right? 

I use the potato masher to smash the berries a little more, but you can skip this step.
Cut the tops and bottoms off the rhubarb...
...and cut into cubes.
Measure the fruit, add the lemon juice. 

Dump into a big heavy-bottomed pot. This can more than double in volume when it's boiling. I use a copper 8 quart pan. (you don't have to take notes - the recipe is all in one place below. You're welcome.)

Add the butter - this helps keep the foam down. So does using fully ripe fruit.
In a small bowl stir 1/4 cup sugar into the low-sugar pectin 
Mix this into the fruit in the kettle (don't you love that word?)
Over high heat stirring constantly, bring to a full rolling boil. That's a boil you can't stir down. Add the sugar...

...and bring back to a rolling boil. Boil for exactly one minute, then ladle into hot jars, leaving about 1/4 inch headroom. 
I use clean well-rinsed rubber gloves to handle the hot jars - more about the jars later.
Wipe the rims clean with a damp paper towel

and screw on two-piece lids - fairly tight, you don't want them leaking in the water bath! Place the jars in the rack
and lower into the boiling water bath and process for ten minutes. This means the water should be gently boiling for ten minutes. It may take a few minutes for the water to return to the boil when you put the jars in - don't start the timer until the water returns to a boil.

Remove from the water bath either by lifting out the whole rack (I find these silicone mitts are great for that) 
or by using the tongs to fish them out one at a time.
Set the hot jars on a towel - a cool granite counter can cause the jars to crack.

A few notes about timing: I start the big pot for the water bath about an hour before I start chopping fruit. I also put the jars in the dishwasher then - by the time your jam is ready the jars should be clean and hot, and the water bath boiling away.

Before you put the jars in the dishwasher remove the lids and rings. Pour boiling water over the lids and let them sit until you're ready to use them. 

Strawberry Rhubarb Preserves

6 cups smashed strawberries
2 cups rhubarb cut into 1/2 inch cubes
juice of one lemon
1 box low sugar pectin
4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter

Measure the fruit, add the lemon juice and butter, and place into a big heavy-bottomed pot. (I use a copper 8 quart pot) 

In a small bowl stir 1/4 cup sugar into the low-sugar pectin, then stir in to the fruit.

Over high heat stirring constantly, bring to a full rolling boil. Add the sugar and return to a full rolling boil. Boil exactly one minute, remove from heat and ladle into hot jars. Screw on lids, water bath for ten minutes.

Makes about 10 or 11 half pints. You won't want to share. You might think about chopping and freezing some rhubarb for later, the grocery stores carry frozen strawberries for when you get desperate but not rhubarb.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Emily's Botanica, or Letter Writing Is Not Dead

I keep hearing the letter is dead, replaced by tweeting and face book status (hmmmm, interesting chocice of words) but among my friends letter writing is a competitive sport. Okay, no one can match Des, her intellect, her erudition, her impeccable manners...and yes, that competitive spirit. And she Hand Makes her gift tags!!! 
...and ribbons!!! 
And don't get me started on her gift wrapping...and the gifts! Home made treats, lavish spa items from the finest stores, you know, the ones you haven't heard of yet? If Des is on it you can bet it will be the happening thing soon. A girl could get a complex.

But my friend Aileen sent me photos of the most luscious cards - 
Voluptuous roses. Sculptural iris. Chic pink blossoms that transport me instantly to Paris. 

I am ordering a bunch. For thank you notes, for hostess gifts, for birthdays and for cheering people up - like me. And best of all they are made by a friend of Aileen's, a lovely young woman who is just starting out. Emily Schmidt. Remember that name. You can thank me later.

Buy them for your friends. Tell your neighbors. Post on facebook.  Right now you can only get them thru:

Social media it up, kids, it's a chance to know about something really beautiful before everyone else catches on. And isn't shopping a competitive sport too?

Thursday, June 2, 2011


On a cool day last fall day I planted garlic in the sticky clay below the bottom lawn. It was the only place there was sun; it was the only place there wasn't some other plant crowding its neighbors and flinging its arm wildly about. The pumpkins I had planted there hadn't thrived in the cold summer; their leaves were covered with powdery mildew. Their few fruits had been cannibalized by voles, the hollow shells left to rot by those furry thieves who had stolen the seeds. I pulled the thin wilted trails of pumpkin vine out and used a spade to make slits in the clay. Trust me, turning the soil to a fine tilth doesn't work here, the clay just sticks back together.

I shoved garlic in the slits in the soil, not believing it could possibly grow there, and tamped the soil back down with my heel. I only planted about a dozen cloves; it was hard work and I was expecting failure. My friend Leslie came down and watched. I didn't have the heart to tell her these were not good gardening practices.

A few weeks later there were gray-green shoots. Encouraging, but still: wet winter. Clay. Didn't get my hopes up. I thought they might put down some roots over the winter, then grow into grown-up garlic in summer.

Last week when I finally went down to the south forty, there were spent stalks falling over. I wanted to try those Cinderella pumpkins again, and I wanted to see what had happened to the garlic, so I shoved a spade in beside a stalk, not expecting much, and I pried out a huge purple head of garlic.

I should explain: I used to grow lots of garlic, plump heads, braided and hung in the garage to be clipped off as needed. Juicy cloves for roast chicken, whole heads roasted and spread on bread. I thought I was a good gardener. In this new garden my best efforts had produced one or two cloves clinging to a withered white stalk. No juicy fat heads. Humbling. So I wasn't expecting this:

There were strange swellings in the stalk. Expecting some voracious bug that was planning to devastate the rest of my garden I cut open a stalk and discovered...
...two tiny perfect cloves of garlic nestled snugly in the stem.

So I've learned some things:
1) Fall plant garlic here. Spring planting worked in my last garden, just a mile away. But not here.

2) Garlic likes heavy soil. I will mulch and continue to dump compost on the clay, but I won't worry about the garlic.

3) Maybe none of the above is true. Maybe it was just dumb luck. Maybe things will turn out totally differently next year. But that's part of the adventure of gardening. And it's not a bad thing to remember about life.