Monday, December 16, 2013

Candy Land

Okay, so these are the caramels I blogged about, the ones that don't scare me any more, the ones I served at our Christmas party last night.  The ones you all ate - not a one left.  Huge hit.  Happy hosts.  

The best parties are when all the food gets devoured with smiles and requests for recipes, when you actually get to talk to people, and when a few friends linger for the after-party, sending you go to bed completely worn out with a big smile on your face.  And when you wake up to chests and tables laden with hostess gifts, and an email note from a friend, "Oh, I forgot and put chocolate under the tree - please go get it before the dog discovers it."  I was sooooooooo tempted to write back, "Chocolate gone.  Dog dead."  but altho I think wicked thoughts I seldom act on them.  Plus I really like this dog...and this friend.

Bourbon-Sea Salt Caramels
Bon Appétit  | December 2013

yield: makes about 100 caramels

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)
Special equipment:
A candy thermometer

Lightly coat an 8x8" baking pan with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper, leaving a 2" overhang on 2 sides; spray parchment.
Bring sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook, swirling pan occasionally, until mixture turns a deep amber color, 8–10 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and whisk in sweetened condensed milk and butter (mixture will bubble vigorously) until smooth. Fit pan with thermometer and return to medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until thermometer registers 240°F. Remove from heat and whisk in bourbon and kosher salt. Pour into prepared pan; let cool. Sprinkle caramel with sea salt, cut into 3/4" pieces, and wrap individually in parchment paper.

DO AHEAD: Caramels can be made 2 weeks ahead. Store wrapped tightly in plastic in airtight container at room temperature.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fear and New Year

Things I've Learned This Year

I know, I know, it's not the new year yet, and resolutions are supposed to be for things you'll change next year, but I am starting a new tradition, and I'm inviting you to join me.  I'm celebrating the things I learned, the fears I overcame - this year.   More fun, less guilt than New Year's resolutions.  Invite your friends.

1.  This year I learned the words to Adeste Fidelis - in Latin.  Remember what George Carlin said about this song? *

2.  How to caramelize sugar.  I was okay if there was some butter mixed in, but straight sugar scared me. Now, you would think a girl who makes her own potato chips and butter toffee and the fried chicken from Ad Hoc (two days.  three people. worth every minute.) wouldn't be afraid of much.  You would be wrong.  But I've been making Bourbon Sea Salt Caramels, and I'm not afraid any more.  

3.  Replace things that need replacing, even if they're not worn out. Like the candy thermometer someone (ahem!) scrubbed all that caramelized sugar off...and all the numbers.  Soak, please - don't scrub.  A candy thermometer without numbers may not be worn out, but it's not much use. Squinting at the shadows left by the scrubbed-off numbers, trying to dodge the little pops of blistering hot caramel from the pot, I decided it's time.

And the microplane grater that's dull.  No more skinned knuckles for me.  The spatulas with nicks and dings in the blade (from trying to get the last bits out of the Cuisinart).  The garlic press that is now missing its little plastic clean-out thingie - Ally had a great snack; I have a new garlic press in my future.  

4.  Playing the piano - again.  It was harder than I expected, and I'm glad I'm hanging in.  Come by just before midnight, and most nights you can hear me practicing.  

5.  Don't attend every argument you're invited to.  And as Robert Brandt said, "Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got."  I would not have understood last year, but I do now. 

6.  Ask for help.  Accept help that's offered.  Say "Yes, I am awesome." Thank you Karyn.  And thank you to my friends.  I love you.

* George Carlin famously said "Oh Come All Ye Faithful is the only Christmas Carol to successfully combine sex and religion".   Go George!  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Words To Live By

Fight. Love. Live.   The origin of Filoli, the incredible estate on the peninsula.  If you haven't been for a while, go.  For the Christmas extravaganza, for the winter bones.  For tulips and daffodils in the spring. Then join.  Or volunteer, and you too can become (as an old classmate once said) one of the crumbs of the upper crust.

We went to see the house decked out for Christmas.   In the cold winter light the entry was awe inspiring, grand to the point of intimidation.   I wondered what it was like when Lurline Matson Roth lived here...
There were bunnies on the chandeliers:
and carolers on the stairs.  Lots of carolers.
Trees crowded with ornaments, all for sale.  Look for the moose when you come to visit me.  
Hint:  He's not anyplace you'd expect.  Keep looking.  Have another drink.  And no, he's not in a cupboard.  Or closet.  With apologies to those who are.

Penguins and polar bears, and stunning black and white ribbons. Sold out, of course.  If you see this ribbon for sale, call me.
Black is the new black.  With apologies to orange.

There were tables laden with candles and silver, ornaments and objects of desire.
And in the garden, a peacock named Percy.  
When I was growing up (and up and up, but that's another story) White Gate Farm was still a farm.  With sheep, and peacocks as guard dogs - no coyote ever got past them.  We used to hitch Campy, the neighbor's pony, to his circus cart with a red leather seat, and ride up the long gravel drive to ask if we could pick up peacock feathers.  Mrs Donohue, always pale and wan in a housecoat, alway gracious, always said yes.

We would listen to the peacocks sound the alarm, and being a wicked mimic I learned to imitate their cries.  So when the docent said Percy was lonely and in search of a mate, I asked if I could talk to him.  I got a weird look, and a "You could try...." Resounding vote of No Confidence.  Wrong thing to do to me.

So I tipped back my head and called, in my best peacock, "Help!" which is pretty much what peacock sounds like if you're not a peacock.  And much to the docent's surprise, Percy perked up and came looking for me.  With a gleam in his eye.  

Much later, as we left the check-out area loaded down with bags and boxes, there was a group of docents taking a break, drinking tea and basking in the weak winter sun.  And I heard a familiar docent-y voice say to his friends "Say, did you know she speaks peacock?"

So helpful for those of you who've been trying to figure out what language I speak.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Old Curiosity Shop, or Fall Flowers at Loot

It's impossible to pass these windows without stopping - they pull you in.  Skinny young men with fierce looking dogs, old men bundled in overcoats - they all stop to look.  They peer at the antique chairs piled with ornaments, at the orange Christmas tree made of piled-up Hermes boxes.  At pale chests covered  with blue and white china. 

They wander in and turn around in amazement.  They move toward a gilded pine cone, an old hunting lamp.  A framed print of  a brightly colored bird, a painting of an old cottage in a richly gilded frame.

There are shells crusted in jewels, branches dangling bright ornaments.

And there is a ceiling festooned with whimsey.  I'm going to Loot.  

See you there.  

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Thanksgiving Guests

Worried about her absentmindedness sliding into Alzheimer's, the family kept an eye on her.  Sometimes she seemed fine, sometimes confused about where she was, or why she was there.  But she was still mostly lucid, just forgetful.

Since it was Thanksgiving there were plenty of family members to help keep track, but in the kerfuffle of getting the turkey carved and the cranberries sauced, the sweet potatoes sweetened and the green beans greened, it was all hands on deck and there was no one to watch her.

Tim, ever resourceful, led her to a large framed photo in the bookcase of the whole family at last summer's reunion at the lake, thinking it would keep her entertained.  And she seemed happy, talking away.  

When the turkey was carved and the dinner on the table she was still there, still chatting briskly away.  Concerned heads peeked around the dining room door, then retreated to the kitchen to discuss in whispers what to do.  Finally, concerned over both the rapidly cooling dinner and the lively one-sided conversation, Tim walked up and tipped the photo face down on the bookshelf.   "Come on mom, let's eat."

She looked brightly up at Tim and said "Thank Goodness!  I thought they'd never leave!"

There are moments of grace in the midst of the worst times.  But I know this: I want to go with all my marbles, not confused and afraid.  I'm not sure I have much choice, but I have good genes and I pay attention to what the researchers say might be helpful. Covering all the bases.

Do math in your head.  There's no one watching, and there's no test.  So what if you get it wrong?  Eventually you'll get it right.  

Figure out the tip without using your phone (hint: double the amount of the bill, then drop a zero.  That's twenty percent.  Don't be cheap.)

Take a foreign language, and be prepared to feel ridiculous.  Learn to laugh at your self.  Don't quit.  So what if you're the worst in the class?  It's not going to affect your GPA.  

Try the jumble, work a crossword (another hint: they get easier). Play the piano, play the kazoo.  Carry a small notebook and write down things that make you smile, things that make you think. Carry a sketchbook.  Write a story.  Start a blog. Write letters to your friends.   Do something to stretch your mind.  Push the envelope.  Push back.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Bigger Box

One hot summer day (remember those?) a crowd of neighborhood kids rang my doorbell.  They were so excited they writhed on the doorstep, flowing over each other with excitement.

"There's a dead bird!  On the neighbors' lawn!"  Shrill voices rose and fell, talking over each other and arguing the finer points of dead bird-ism.

I'm not sure if I remember what it's like to be a kid, or if I am still that same person I was as a kid, but I have lots of friends in single digits (and some friends nearing triple digits, but that's another story). These kids knew something needed to be done, and they knew where to come.

"We need to bury it!  We need a box!"  There is no urgency like the urgency of a child.  

In the garage, on top of the fridge was a pile of boxes I had been saving to wrap presents.  I picked out a box big enough to hold four truffles.  Or one bird.  Or so I thought. 

"Nope.  Not big enough."  I looked around - hyperbole is as common as skinned knees among the under-ten set.  All heads were nodding, all faces were solemn.  Okay, a bigger box.

I picked out another box, this one half the size of a shoebox. Nope. My Jimmy Choo shoe box?  Still too small. Really?  But they finally selected a bigger shoe box, the one Wally's sneakers came in.

I headed for Maneesha's lawn thinking pteryodactyl.  I mean, how big can a dead bird be?  We live in the suburbs, not the north woods, and I am used to seeing goldfinches at my feeder, and shy bushtits flitting away when I open the back door.  Little birds, not birds the size of men's sneakers.

It was a pigeon, not recently dead, with gashes from a hawk or other bigger meat-eating bird (and remember that when you look at that turkey).  Wasps were already swarming around.  And it was big.  Definitely sneaker size.  

Being a veteran of several prior dead bird adventures I had brought a pair of sturdy leather gloves.  I mean if we're worried about salmonella in our supermarket chicken, just think what's winging around with the pigeons.  Especially the dead ones.

Freaked out by the wasps, and egged on by each other's screaming, the decibels rose to Hitchcock film  level as I dropped the buzzing pigeon in the box and smacked on the lid.  We sat down and had an impromptu session on the benefits of nature's scavengers, the garbage collectors of the natural world, and on how annoying screaming is to everyone except the person screaming.  Then it was off to find a burial site.

So where to bury a slightly decomposed pigeon?  "The most beautiful place in the world" said Daisy.  Nods all around.  And since Agra and the Taj Mahal were too far away, where would they recommend?

"Your Garden!" they all yelled.  So a dozen kids swarmed my garden like wasps on a dead pigeon, looking for the perfect Final Resting Place.  They finally agreed on a spot just below a deep blue hydrangea, shaded by an ancient buckeye.  I dug a big hole, stuck in the box, and started covering it.

"Wait!" Daisy screamed.  "We need a funeral."  Beyond my pay grade.  Especially a pigeon funeral.  I mean, what do you say?  Sorry you're dead but at least now you can't crap on my head?  Or whirl into flight right in front of me and scare the crap out of me?  

"He needs a name.  We can't have a funeral without a name."  There went my idea for the Tomb of the Unknown Pigeon.  Oh well.

"Fluffy.  His name is Fluffy."  With apologies to bunnies everywhere, we said goodbye and good luck to Fluffy the Pigeon, tucked him in under the hydrangea deeply enough to discourage the raccoons, shed a few tears, and then all trooped off for cookies.  It's not a real funeral unless there is food.

As I'm going thru my stack of boxes looking for the right size for the gift I'm wrapping, I think of that pigeon.  And I cannot look at a naked bird (think turkey here) without thinking of the avian funeral.

There is a book, now long out of print, called Blinkie The Friendly Hen.  By Jeffrey Vallance, an artist who pushes the envelope.  It is truly food for thought.  But you might want to wait until after Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Important Safety Tip

So my mom learned something today - no matter how fancy your umbrella, no matter how hard it's raining...

it's important to open it outside the car.  

It's also important to laugh.  Thanks mommy.  I have so much fun with you!

Sunday, November 10, 2013


He paints in his garage.  He's in a bunch of well-known museums and collections.  We were lucky enough to buy a painting before they climbed out of our price range.  For him painting is as necessary as breathing.  His name is Joe Loria - check him out.
I thought about him as I was sketching.  I've been thinking a lot about the need to create.

I had a gift tag craft day at my house...
Friends came, brought lunch to share, glittered and stickled and laughed and amazed me with their creativity.  
Girls rock.  My girlfriends rock.  
Especially the ones (hello Ellen) who said they were not creative, and then made the most beautiful and unusual things.  (I took notes.)
It's worth a closer look:
I have a pile of gift tags, I am covered in glitter, and I have a kitchen (and a head) full of happy memories.

So when you get a beautiful hand-made gift tag from a friend, I hope you'll save it.   A lot of love and heart went into making it. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Piano

When I was four, a baby grand piano was delivered to our house.  The piano movers left it in the entry, and all the neighborhood kids crowded onto the bench and banged away at the keys.  My mom let us, and she will forever be my hero for letting half a dozen sticky-fingered kids wail away on her ebony and ivory (really) piano.  And for a whole host of other things.

I remember being in my undies and a tee shirt, just on my way to a nap, enchanted with the  magic thought that this was ours, that I could play the piano when ever I wanted.

When I woke up from my nap, the piano was in a corner of the living room, looking like it was born there.  It has lived in a corner of my mom's living room ever since.

I don't ever remember not being able to play.  Debbie was - and is - way better - I remember recitals at Mrs Hinman's, in a dark serious room with solemn parents on black bleacher seats.  I remember being terrified, and amazed at how accomplished and calm my sister Debbie was.

Every Christmas there would be carols around the piano, one year with the local music teacher whose wife taught with mommy, most years with my sisters playing.  I remember late summer afternoons with the windows open playing to the birds.  

For years I have played when ever I visited.  And for years my mom has been saying "Why don't you take the piano?"  We even made a paper template, so I could see where it would fit.

Finally I was ready - I was going to put it in my office and ditch my drafting desk.  My friend Cathy came to visit and said "But the piano belongs in the living room!  It will turn your office into the piano closet.  It needs to go in the living room."  

"But there's no place to put it" I said.

"Move that chest out into the entry.  Now move that chair, and put this chest where the chair was.  Those two chairs go in the dining room, and the piano goes there."  So simple, so hard to see.  Thank you Cathy.
So I called mommy and said "Okay, I'm ready for the piano" and she said "Nope.  I've changed my mind.  You can't have it."

Oops.  I looked into renting one with the option to buy if I liked it. Our piano has a very different feel, not at all like the resistance you get from a new piano.  This one is well loved, and familiar.  It's family.

The next morning mommy called and said "Please call the piano movers before I get all crazy again."  Not crazy, just a huge change.  That piano has been her companion for more than half her life.  
It has only been a few weeks, but it feels like the piano has been there forever.  And I play every chance I get, in stolen moments waiting for Wally to put his shoes on so we can walk the dog, at night before bed.  I'm getting better.  And I'm loving it. We all need a creative outlet.  I have been sketching again (more on that later), but there is nothing like playing the piano, and I can feel a shift in the ground beneath my feet.

So here is my gift to you: do something different, something artistic.  Something you're not good at.  Something embarrassing and scary.  Do it in private, do it for yourself.  Carry a sketchbook, play the saxophone late at night when no one can hear.  Squeak away.  Learn to blow glass.  Write a story.  Do something creative - it will feed your soul.  And it will change the way you feel about the world.  For the better.   That's a promise.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Vines and Wines

Two years ago we picked our grapes on November  6th- this year it was September 26th.  It's not just when the grapes are ready - unlike the old days making wine (and I'm talking thirty years ago) you don't just measure the sugar - you measure the seeds to see if they are ripe.  You measure the acid.  And lots of other stuff I won't bore you with here.  These grapes get more tests than a cardiac pre-op patient.   

When everyone agreed they were ready, we bundled up (it's cold in the morning!) to pick.
Up at dawn, finished by the time we were craving that second cup of coffee.  With all of us picking it goes fast.
It's a small vineyard, only one kind of grape, and that on a special root stock.  Finally getting good fruit set (that's winemaker talk for lots of grapes).
We were talking with our neighbor Tim about all the testing.  He has the best advice.  "Taste the grapes.  Taste the seeds.  All this measuring of sugars and acids and have the best tester right inside your mouth."

He has a lab.  He has an incredible palate, and a great sense of perspective.  His wines are wonderful - full and round and rich.   Next year I'm going with the Tim method. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Living Abroad, and Hopelessly Old Fashioned

There is a wonderful article about living in London (as opposed to just visiting - and feeling smug) by Sarah Lyall in tomorrow's New York Times.  It's witty and clever, full of thoughtful information.   Makes me want to book a flat in Firenze for a year.

My favorite quote:

"Many places (restaurants, dry cleaners) don’t deliver, and shopkeepers are either oleaginously sycophantic or icily contemptuous. I could not have been much older than 35 when I suddenly became known as “madam,” and no one says “madam” with more disdain than a 20-year-old working at Topshop, where, unfortunately, my teenage daughters loved to shop for clothes that would have looked more appropriate on prostitutes."

Oh yes.  Those clothes have crossed the pond.  Drive past any middle school  - it doesn't even need to be a warm day - and you don't have to be as old as I am to be startled.  I realize burkas are a bad idea, and wrist-to-ankle coverage went out before my grandmother was born, but I think parts that are part of an Ob/Gyn exam should not be on full display...especially in a place of learning.  Unless it's anatomy class.

Am I hopelessly old fashioned?  Is this the new norm, or just a look for the select few?  Is this what the popular kids wear, or the wanna-be-s?

Do these kids have parents?  They must...what do the parents think?  The administration?  Surely it's hard enough to get teenagers to concentrate.  How much influence does anyone really have?

What do you think?  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Garden In Winter

Sloat Nursery has tips for getting your garden ready for winter.  These are from their website - check it out.  Sign up for emails.  Then get yourself outside and start winterizing.  And weeding...

Let’s be honest.  The glory of gardening is usually found in growing and harvesting vibrant flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables.  The clean-up and winter prep aspect of gardening (while incredibly necessary), is sort of, well, “meh”.  That being said, we want to encourage you to take an afternoon or two to clean and prepare for the cold and rainy months ahead.  Follow our list of 8 simple steps, and voilà, you’ll be finished in no time!

1. Clean out leaves and dead plants from gutters, walkways, containers and raised beds.

2. Use Forest Mulch Plus on perennials and vegetable beds to enrich the soil for next spring.

3. Stock up on frost blankets. Protect plants from freezing temperatures with lightweight garden fabric that acts like a miniature “green-house” when frost is expected.

4. Clean garden tools to get them ready for next year. Shovels and pruners can be sprayed with Bahco Clean Spray to keep them from rusting over the winter months. Cleaning your tools now can also help keep diseases from getting into next year’s garden.

5.  Stake newly planted trees to support them through their first winter. We offer a wide variety of stake lengths and widths.

6.  Use E.B. Stone Organic Ultra Bloom. It helps build immunity to disease and supports better root and bud formation for spring bloomers like Rhododendron, Azalea, Camellia, flowering plum and Magnolia.  (plus it makes your oranges and tangerines sweeter!)

7.  Cloud Cover is multifaceted. It’s not just a go-to for protecting plants from frost damage, Cloud Cover also:
  •  Protects against moisture loss when propagating or transplanting new plants.
  • Protects plants from hot and drying Bay Area winds.
  • Does a great job keeping Christmas greens fresh.
8.  We receive multiple inquiries each fall about how to prevent disease and insects from taking over fruit trees, nut crops, citrus, vegetables and ornamentals.  We recommend two products to ensure a disease free harvest next year.

Monterey Horticultural Oil: To help prevent scale and overwintering eggs from mites, aphids and other insects, we recommend a fall application of Monterey Horticultural Oil. It’s a spray oil emulsion made with highly paraffinic-based petroleum oils. Monterey Horticultural Oil should be applied while trees are dormant.

Monterey Liqui-Cop (Liquid Copper): Helps prevent disease infestations such as peach leaf curl, brown spot and scab. Dormant sprays are traditionally applied in the fall once leaves have fallen, and again in mid-winter, then in spring as the buds begin to swell. Liqui-Cop is widely used in agriculture and is very rain resistant.
Note: Monterey Horticultural Oil and Liquid-Cop can be applied at the same time.

And when you get done with all of this, if you're still in a gardening mood, I have poa annua taking over the world and boxwood in need of a trim...

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Sure Start

How did it get to be October?  And almost Halloween?  I'm still planning to add a few tomatoes to my garden, and some pumpkins...I guess I'll have to wait until next year, and plant parsley and dill and chervil and cilantro instead.

If you live in Chicago, that must sound crazy, but they will germinate and grow here now, while the soil is still warm and the days are warm but shorter and not baking hot - that makes them bolt.  And when it gets cold they will be so established they'll take it in stride, producing crisp greens all winter.  At least that's the theory - but it only works if you plant them now.

Olivia and I planted a bunch of lettuces one year in November.  Late November.  In a big pot with fabulous soil.  They came up - barely - and sat there for the whole winter, a few spindly sad leaves.  When the weather warmed up they couldn't wait to bolt.  No lettuces for eating, and a healing serving of guilt.  

Lettuce is a winter crop here.  So are parsley, dill, chervil and cilantro.  But plant them now!   In a few weeks it will be too cold.  I'm off to dig up one of the (many) sad looking parts of my garden, scratch in a little Sure Start fertilizer, and tamp in some seeds.  And don't forget the tamping!  Remember when Annie of Annie's Annuals talked about her first seed-starting foray?  Her cat, Persephone, walked across the six packs, and the seeds only sprouted in the footprints.  A good patting down is essential to germination.  

And don't forget the sweet peas!  Soak the seeds overnight - cover with very warm water (almost hot but please! you don't want to cook them!  use some discretion.. This from the girl who blackened the bottoms of the rose stems with boiling water, the theory being "If a little is good, a lot is better.  Not in gardening.  Show some restraint.) and let the seeds soak and the water cool overnight.  In the morning plant with some Sure Start in the bottom of the hole.  Spring will be floriferous and fragrant! 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An Evening With Gwen

I told my mom we were going to hear Gwen Ifill at the Oakland Speakers Series, and she said "Oh, I spend every evening with her!  Please give her my best."  and I thought  "Oh yeah, there are over a thousand people there - I'm sure that will happen."

Walking through the lobby, there was Jim Weil, the host of the Speakers Series.  And walking right next to him was Gwen Ifill.  Being the shy retiring violet I am, I called out "Hey!  You're supposed to be in there!" and I pointed at the auditorium.

Gwen smiled and said "I'll be right back - I just want to see some of this beautiful place."  She was so warm.  So when she stopped to say hello to someone, I went over and said "My mom said to tell you hello - she spends every evening with you."  Gwen laughed, and when I asked for a photo (so my mom would believe me) she could not have been nicer.  You'd never know there were a thousand people waiting to hear her speak.  Or a beautiful theatre waiting to be explored.
She talked about Congress behaving badly, and the deadlock (which hopefully will be over by the time you read this).   "They're acting like high-schoolers, not sitting together."  Actually I think high-schoolers are more mature.

She said "There are Federal employees who can't pay their bills, but the Congressional gym is open."  and "Did you know Congress is now less popular than head lice?"  Head lice is getting a bad rap.

"All the finger pointing is like a fun-house mirror - without the fun."  

And she talked about journalism - real journalism where you don't reach a conclusion before you have the facts, not the blow-hards who call themselves journalists while spouting opinions.  How it is the journalist's role to remain in the background - "I have an opinion,"  she said.  "But if I'm doing my job, you won't know what it is."  

She talked about being a black woman and a journalist and the Constitution:.  "I'm not the person the founding fathers had in mind  - it took about a dozen amendments to get to me."   And about how to let the audience know you know the person you're interviewing hasn't answered your question without being argumentative or petulant.  I haven't mastered that one yet.  I'll be watching her for help.

And she left us with a great parting thought.  "Asking questions doesn't make us bullies - it makes us citizens.  And patriots."

I'll be thinking about this for a long time.  We could all use more Gwen Ifill in our lives.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Vanilla Time

A box arrived today, smelling of vanilla and promising delicious things to come.  It's from Beanilla, my new addiction.

It's not the first time I've made vanilla (check out my old blog post for the recipe).  I was inspired by my dear friend Desiree whose vanilla will change your life.   Beans, alcohol - she knows everything about making The Best Vanilla.  And yes, it makes a huge difference when you're baking.  Or making candy.
And if you want to have it for gift-giving season, it's time to get started.  So if you're lucky (and nice!) you'll be getting some little brown bottles full of deliciousness from me at Holiday time.  And I will be here for the next few months shaking the bottles and smelling the elixer.  Right now my kitchen smells like Christmas and love, my hands are speckled with seeds, and the garbage looks like some stone cold alkies live here.  It's just the vanilla....

Monday, September 23, 2013


At a most warm and wonderful garden wedding this weekend (yes it rained Saturday - but not on this wedding!) the bride read a poem to her mother.  Funny, touching, grab-you-in-the-gut wonderful.  Here it is. By Billy Collins.  Now go dig out some old poetry and read it.  With our short attention spans, video games and digital bombardment, we don't read enough poetry.  Think of it as printed yoga.

Or better yet, go to a poetry slam!  I've only ever heard them on the radio, but it's not your grandmother's poetry, and it's on my bucket list.  And mommy, I'm sorry I never made you a lanyard.  But I did make you a lot of weirdly colored ash trays...

The Lanyard - Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Included in  The Trouble with Poetry. Purchase from your local bookstore.  Like Rakestraw in Danville

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sweet Pea!

A timely reminder from Orchard Nursery in Lafayette - it's Sweet Pea planting time!!!

"Colorful, fragrant Sweet Peas make magnificent cut flowers for the vase - in large, long lasting quantities. They are a hardy, winter - spring annual vine to about 10' tall. Provide a trellis, string, or wire, as plants need support as soon as the tendrils form. They are ideal as a temporary screen.
Sweet Peas like sun or light shade; rich, moist, well - drained soil high in organic matter and regular deep watering."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Where There's Smoke...

On the way home from The French Laundry:
(anniversary lunch.  Yes it was fabulous - thanks for asking) where we had out favorites, Oysters and Pearls with cauliflower panna cotta...
...and Salmon cones with creme fraiche...
...we saw the mushroom cloud.  Smoke, being hot, rises 'til it hits cooler air, then it spreads.  We are becoming experts (albeit unwilling) in identifying the mushroom clouds that go with fires.

"How far away do you think that fire is?"  Wally asked.

"Thirty miles" I replied, and rolled over on the car seat and went back to sleep.

Nearly home, the smell of smoke woke me.  When the sun went down the sky looked angry, clouds of smoke glowed red and orange.

We sat by the pool and watched the fire grow.  By this morning the flames were lapping over the ridge.  Creepy.  Scary.
Grace called in a panic - should we grab the dogs and run?  Leslie stopped in the street.  Her kids were freaked out.  Friends from London and New York called.  The big question: "Are you alright?"

"Yes"  I replied.  "There are lots of very expensive houses between us and the fire.  They're not going to let all that pricey real estate burn."  And if it does?   We are more than the sum of our possessions.  As long as we have the dog and each other, the rest is unimportant.  Yup, even the jewelry.  And the books.

Late this morning when I took Mommy out for lunch we could barely breathe.  When we went to get in the car after lunch it was coated with ash.  Thought I would have to turn on the windshield wipers.

About 2 in the afternoon the Borate bombers arrived.  By 5 the smoke had cleared.  We had dinner in the garden under a blue sky.  And we are off to sleep under the stars.

It's one of the hazards of living in California, where it does not rain from April to October, sometimes later.  If you didn't grow up here it seems weird.  If you grew up here fire, heat, dry - it's all a part of the seasons, like snow in New England.   Which is rare here - when it does snow, about once every 20 years, we all run outside and act like little kids.  

What do you live with that freaks other people out?  Earthquakes, tornadoes?  Hurricanes?  Monsoons?  

Monday, September 9, 2013

To Do In The Garden

And while we're on the subject of year, here is the list of what needs doing in the garden at this time of year, courtesy of Sloat Garden Center.  Shop Local!  

This month in the garden at Sloat Garden Center: September

sep 2013

  • Watch for the arrival of all our spring bulbs. Shop early for the best selection.
  • Plan landscaping projects now. Think about walkways and flower/vegetable beds, as well as focal point shrubs and trees. Need guidance? Call Sloat’s Garden Design Department for expert advice.
  • Choose fall blooming pansies and other autumn color.
  • Plant fall vegetables such as kale, collard, spinach, arugula and lettuces.
  • Apply lawn fertilizer monthly with Nature’s Green Lawn Food.
  • Aerate compacted soil.
  • Containers, summer annuals and cool season annuals will enjoy monthly feeding at this time of year with Maxsea all-purpose fertilizer.
  • Keep the garden clean. Pick up fallen fruit to avoid pests and disease next year. Clean out plant debris. Prepare soil with Loam Builder for fall vegetable beds.
  • Mulch with Greenall Micro Bark to inhibit weeds and conserve moisture.
Now go out and plant something.  Preferably something from Sloat. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How To Get Sweeter Oranges

This tip just came from Orchard Nursery in Lafayette - a World Class Nursery.  Incredibly knowledgable staff, great selection of basics and really unusual plants (check out the 4 inch section for the most mouth-watering perennials!) with great displays to inspire new plant combinations and new cravings.  Come with your car empty - it will be full when you leave.  And! they have great classes.  A petting zoo in fall, a winter wonderland during the holidays.  What more could you ask for?

For Sweeter Oranges:

Fertilize in late summer, fall and winter with Master Nursery Master Bloom or Garden Elements Ultra Bloom. These fertilizers are formulated without nitrogen to aid in the development of flowers and fruits, and they also help plants resist disease and cold weather damage. High potassium is very important in increasing sugar levels in citrus (especially oranges and tangerines) and studies have shown that high potassium levels in the soil improve yield, color, size and quality of the fruit. Apply once a month from late summer to spring and taste the difference in your next crop.

Postcard From The Hedge: September 2013

The Garden Club Year

Over lunch today we were talking about a garden club we used to enjoy that has become boring and bitchy.  Not sure which is worse.   And the discussion morphed into a list of Programs That Never Were.  Here are a few of our funnier ideas:

January:  Bitch Slapping 101.  Bring your attitude! Guaranteed to be fun for all...well, about half, actually.  Ibuprofin will be provided.

February:   How To Lead a Horticulture, But Not Make Her Think (think about it.  say it out loud.  then thank Dorothy Parker, and hope you grow up to be just like her.)

March:  Drivel, Or  How To Say Absolutely Nothing  In Three and a Half Pages.  A must for newsletter editors and contributors.

April:  The Bored Meeting (no, there's no mis-spelling here)  Deviled Eggs Will Be Served.  And Eaten.  

May:  Flower Arranging To Intimidate

June: Custom Cocktails For Fundraisers:  Get Hammered Tax-Deductibly and on Someone Else's Insurance.  A must for all future fund-raising chairpersons.  There will be an optional twelve-step program beginning immediately after the fund raiser.

July: Workshop:  Making Your By-Laws More Obscure and Confusing.  Fun for all!

August:  Paralyzing Your Club Thru By-Laws (this is a continuation of the July Program)

September:  Wresting Control From The Electorate Via Shadowing, or How To Neuter The Nominating Committee

October:  The D.I.Y. Herbal Colonoscopy:  How To Find Your Head

November:  How To Be Treasurer and Never Balance (or even open!) a Checkbook.  Or a Computer.  No experience required - in fact no experience is preferred!

December:  Entertaining To Intimidate.  This will be a continuation of our May program.  You must have successfully completed Flower Arranging To Intimidate in order to attend.  

And a bonus workshop for you over-achievers:  Making Sarin Gas From Scratch.   For those times when nothing else is working, and you really need a fresh start.  You must have attended Castor Bean 101 to take this advanced workshop.

It should be an interesting year!  Jane Doe, President For Life.   

Saturday, August 31, 2013


They plant about 250 tomato plants each year.  Dianne and John.  Found each other later in life; deeply in love, adorable.  Inspiring.

The tomatoes are up the hill just behind their house.  They dry farm; they only water to get the plants started, then the plants are on their own.  They say they have a high water table - they're farmers and ranchers - they would know.

The tomatoes are as sweet as candy.  I'm planting my tomatoes next year where I can keep them dry - right now they're next to the lawn and insipid.

I picked a lot - to share with my neighbor who is teaching her kids the joy of preserving.  For my friend Gina who is working hard to hold body and soul - and family - together.  For a friend who works several jobs to make ends meet.  And some to make pomorolo with my friend Leslie.
They share with the Food Bank.  They share with their neighbors and friends.  And us.
Right after our ladies who were invited to pick last year left, John went into his workshop and made this sign:
And looking up from the house, it is.  Fanny Hill.  

The over-ripe tomatoes went to the cows (yes they were cows.  Not bulls, not steers.  I checked.  Ask me how I know).  They were in the field right next door to the tomatoes - the one that they lease to a cattleman who I am sure would think we are all batty - hand feeding cows?  really?  but it was great fun... 
After a few tomatoes were tossed over the fence to be sniffed and then snuffled up, they would eat out of your hand.  Gently.  Cow slobber sticks - took me three tries to get it off my hands,  And my iphone cover may never be the same. 
Notice how Alice and the cow have coordinated their outfits.  Wish I had known - I would have dressed differently.

His family has lived on this land and cared for it since about the Gold Rush.  She is the perfect hostess, and set a table with an abundance of flowers from her incredible garden...
Do you detect a theme here?
The soil must be incredible - I have never seen a sunflower so tall.  Or so happy. 
They grow figs and peaches, apricots and apples.  And flowers.  We were set loose in the flower garden and everyone left with a big bouquet - there were dahlias in all colors...
and amaranth as tall as I am and as bushy as a broom.
Eggplants small and large - Japanese long and Rosa Bianca, my favorite.  Peppers hot and sweet. Tomatoes cherry and beefsteak.  Yellow Brandywine and Sweet 100.  
The only one who wasn't impressed was Otis.  Yes that's a yawn.  It's what he does when he doesn't want to obey.  I'm gonna try it.
It took some doing, but we managed to fit almost all of it in the back of Sue's car...altho Cindy did have to hold a basket on her lap.
The joys of late summer, the gift of good friends.  The taste of a just picked tomato, so juicy it runs down your chin.  Maybe August isn't so bad after all.

Friday, August 30, 2013

By Hand

Fatti Con Le Mani, it proudly proclaims, in big swirly gold writing across the top tube of my husband's bike. Thanks to Gina's Italian class, I can say with confidence: it means Made with the Hands. By Dario Pegoretti.

I was thinking about that today when I was cooking, grating the hard Parmigiano Reggiano cheese by hand on a stand-up grater.  Although I have used a microplane grater, I prefer the large holes of a stand-up grater.  You can taste the crunchy salty crystals in the cheese.  That's the best part.  The microplane makes cheese fluff - fine for melting, but not for melting on the tongue.

And I was remembering whipping cream to gentle peaks.  With a whisk and a very tired arm. (No, they're not getting mixed together, the cheese and the whipped cream...altho there is a wonderful melon, stone fruit and buratta salad....strange bedfellows, fabulous salad mates.  Recipe below).

I have a friend (well, maybe...) who thinks I'm crazy not to use the Cuisinart to grate cheese.  But when I grate it by hand I can see the grains fall away, judge the hardness, sneak a taste and feel the salty crystals crunch and burst with flavor.  I can decide that I want bigger or smaller pieces.  Or curls instead of shreds.

And the softer cheeses?  The Cuisinart totally mashes them.  Cheddar becomes Velveeta-like.  Yuck.  Plus I hate the noise the Cuisinart makes when grating Parmigiano.  It sounds like something's going very wrong inside the machine, like it's about to take off, or start throwing parts around the kitchen.

So I grate by hand.

I discovered whipping cream by hand when we were making Affogato (Ice cream.  Espresso.  In a tall glass.  With maybe a few chocolate covered coffee beans, and a dollop of softly whipped cream.  Heaven.)  We were in East Hampton and we couldn't find the beaters to the hand mixer, so Peter and I traded off with a balloon whisk -  tasting, resting, adding a splash of vanilla and a little sugar, and when no one else was looking a tiny sploosh of bourbon.  We quit whipping before it was as firm as the beaters would have made it, and the soft cream draped over the ice cream like a hug.  It was fabulous.

I cook because I love it.  It calms me, keeps me in the moment.  For me, it's the journey, not the destination.   The fact that delicious things come out is just a bonus - I'd cook anyway.  And it's better than a Junior Chemistry set - less chance of me blowing up the garage (altho there was that one time I forgot to watch the popcorn...Near melt-down.  Keep me away from the chemistry set).

So if you come to my kitchen you will find me grating cheese, and chopping parsley and basil - by hand.  And juicing lemons and mincing mint.  It is my meditation.  It keeps me in the moment.  Because as my legendary grandfather used to say, "You can't cook thru field glasses."

Melon, Stone Fruit and Burrata Salad - from the San Jose Mercury News

Serves 6
Note: Balinese long pepper is available in specialty shops and online. Try The Shed in Healdsburg. If you cannot find it, substitute a few grinds of coarse black pepper.  Or come by and I will share.  I have a lifetime supply...

1 red bell pepper, sliced into rings, seeds and pith removed
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/4 ripe honeydew melon, peeled and seeded
1/4 ripe cantaloupe, peeled and seeded
1/8 ripe watermelon, peeled and seeded
1 nectarine, halved, pit removed
1 fresh apricot, halved, pit removed
1/2 pound fresh burrata cheese
1 bunch watercress
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon Balinese long pepper
1. Quick-pickle the red bell pepper by placing the rings in cold rice vinegar overnight.
2. Cut the melons and stone fruit into assorted shapes and sizes for visual and textural appeal. Drain the bell pepper.
3. Arrange melons, stone fruit and bell pepper in alternating layers on individual plates. In the center of each, place a generous spoonful of burrata. Finish salad with some sprigs of watercress.
4. Drizzle lemon juice and olive oil over each salad. Finish with a pinch of curry powder, coarse sea salt and freshly ground long pepper.

Jill's notes:  This sounded totally weird to me, but it was such a hit!  Every single person who has tasted it has raved.  And asked for the recipe.  I don't know who this Chris Borges person is, but I'm hiring her (or him) for my next big party.  Yum.  

-- from Chris Borges, Taste Catering