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

Monday, August 12, 2013

John's Fancy Gin Drink

John learned to make these -  in Amsterdam, I think.  Mother church of Gin, with apologies to England.  The English call it Mother's Ruin, based on the horrid cheap stuff they used to sedate the restless populace.  Hard to drum up a revolution when you can't find the door.

But the Dutch have embraced gin.  In fact a lot of people have embraced gin (some with better results than others - you don't want to do too much embracing at any one time or you may find yourself embracing the toilet bowl...but I digress).

Artisanal gins have been popping up lately, made by former rocket scientists and hedge fund managers who got tired of making rockets and managing hedges.  The shelves at Lunardi's groan under the weight.  And we are working our way through them.  But so far my favorite is Hendrick's.  It is not as aggressively juniperous (new word!) as Bombay Sapphire, and not as indistinct as the common airline gin in the green bottle.  It makes a bracing dry martini.  A crisp gin and tonic.  And now, thanks to John, we serve our gin and tonics (gins and tonics?) with a long curl of cucumber - peel attached - stuck to the inside of the glass.  Or artfully applied, if you're feeling poetic.
I still think Bombay Sapphire requires lime to settle the juniper down a bit, but Hendrick's practically cries out for cucumber.  Doesn't miss the lime at all.

Slightly herbal, crisp and refreshing, after a few of these you will be writing prose like a Bon Appetit staff writer.  Hmmmm, I wonder if that's how they get their inspiration?  After all, somebody has to test-drive all those cocktail recipes.  My liver quails at the thought.  I guess that's what they have interns for.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

n + 1

It's the number of bikes you need, n being the number you have now.   Always one more.

This zippy equation (makes you feel smarter already, doesn't it?) is brought to you courtesy of Dan Harvey, our neighbor and uber-cyclist.  The Danimal, his team mates call him.  Also Danorexic.   You have to be thin if you want to be really fast.  He is.  And he spends an inordinate amount of time on his bike.  I mean his bikes.

His garage looks like a branch of the local bike shop, bikes lined up neatly in rows.  Lots of bikes.  In fairness, some probably belong to the kids (perhaps the ones with the tiny tires?) and one may even be his wife's.  But he's approaching double digits in his own bikes, and still...n + 1.

He's also fast on his feet.  He brought up the topic, and the equation, over dinner in the garden.  If you've been paying attention you've probably noticed that a lot of stuff happens over dinner in our garden.  We all got the impression that Leann thinks she has to pick her way past quite enough bikes just to get the groceries and the kids in the back door, and another bike is not what's required here.  In fact her equation would probably be n minus 1...or 2.  But Dan had his eye on a sleek new mountain bike, and so he trotted out the equation on support of his position.  And after a bit of rosé we could see his point.

My vice is not bikes.  I have one Colnago I am inordinately attached to.  Physically as well as mentally, if all is going well.  Not really in the market for another bike, altho that new Colnago C50 with the fancy paint job is pretty slick...But apply the equation to shoes and you have my full support.

When we took the kids home the other night after pizza (yes, in our garden) they proudly pointed out their dad's fizzy new mountain bike.  And it is beautiful...I felt faster just looking at it.  It's thick and curvy and sexy, with a paint job that looks like it crawled off a poster from a 60's head shop.  But it's part of the n now.

Can't wait to see what the next + 1 will be.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Postcard From The Hedge - August 2013

Open Up!

I cut down two trees today.  Small trees, volunteers.  I felt horrible doing it.   I was remembering trees I cut down in my younger gardening days that should have stayed - a teen-age oak that was crowding a staircase (so what?) a fig that had fallen years earlier, and re-grown sideways and lying down.  It would have made a wonderful place to sit.  It gave the garden character, and a hint of danger.  

But I was young and I wanted a clean slate.  I didn't know how much charm they would have lent the garden.  That the best gardens are built with the problems, and they become the best things about the garden.  

But some things do need to come out.  Not every volunteer adds charm, some just muddy the waters.  So out came the big saw, the one with four teeth per inch, the one that took a bite out of my hand many years ago and left curved scars.

Years ago, a wild plum had sprung up under the oak tree, next to the path.  I put up with its thorns, its wayward branches, and the small sour fruit that none of us eat..  But this year it set a bumper crop of plums, and as I was scraping them off my shoes for the hundredth time, it hit me: I can take it out.  

I can take it out.  Such freeing words.  When the plum finally fell, there was a beautiful view into the bottom garden.  When did that disappear?  It happens so slowly I didn't see it go, but I am delighted to look down on the stately columns of thuja, the blowsy orange roses.  To see the vineyard, the red oaks, the wind moving thru the leaves.

There were other problems: the oregano had eaten the oat grass.  Shasta daisies had buried a sprinkler, stopped it from popping up, and made a swamp in one place and a desert in another.  Snip.  Snip.  

There is a fair bit of pruning that should happen in the summer.  Winter prune to stimulate growth, summer prune to suppress growth.  All the apples and pears on the fence outside my kitchen window get two summer haircuts - one in late June or early July, one now.  (Okay, this year I was gone so they only got one, last week.  And they're coping.  But in an ideal year...) 

Winter pruning of espaliers defeats the purpose - you're trying to restrict growth, not stimulate it.  Same goes for any tree you are trying to keep smaller than it wants to be.  And of course you know to never never never top a tree.  Right?  Even Arborists get this one wrong.  And some don't know about summer pruning.  But now you do, so grab some ribbon or brightly colored tape and go outside.  

This is a great time to take stock of your garden.  In fall, fallen leaves open up vistas that are blocked now.  And fall foliage is a huge distraction, it's so beautiful.  So here we go.  Walk thru your garden, up and down all the paths.  Look from the house into the garden.  Then look back at the house from the garden.  Pretend you've never seen it before.  Look from other directions, not just the way you usually go around.  You're looking for a fresh perspective.  What's working?  What do you wish you had more of?  Where are the holes?  And what needs to go?

Tie a ribbon to the plant you're thinking of taking out, and walk around the garden, looking at the plant from all different angles.  Can you prune it so it's airier?  Will that solve the problem?  Or does it need to come out?  I tried thinning the plum for years before I finally grabbed the saw.  And I'm not sorry.  I am still thinning a loropetalum that wants to be a plum-colored hedgehog.  It's a constant dialogue; I prune, it grows and fills in, I shape and snip and stand back, and at some point I accidentally cut off a branch that's attached to something I just spent half an hour thinning and shaping.  It will happen.  Forgive yourself, move on.  That's gardening.  That's life.

This month in the garden from Sloat Garden Center: August
haemanthus flower

• Time to start planting fall vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, celery, kale and chard.
• Select and plant fall blooming perennials such as asters, rudbeckia and salvia. Look for mums later this month.
• Don’t forget to feed vegetables and flowers with a steady-release fertilizer such as E.B. Stone All Purpose.
• Make sure all tall and vining vegetables are supported by cages, stakes, or trellises to avoid crop loss.
• Time to summer–prune fruit trees to control height, maintain shape and eliminate suckers. Stop by Sloat for a good pair of high quality Loppers or West County gloves.
•Water lawns deeply. Two shorter watering periods with a 10–15 minute period in between reduces runoff, saving water and creating a healthier lawn. Check your timers. Too much water? Consider reducing the size of your lawn this fall. Stay tuned for our "Lose your Lawn" seminar series this September + October!
• Fertilize your lawn with Nature’s Green Lawn food.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Fit of Pique

I have a problem with August.  Ugly flat dull light at noon, scorching mid-day heat, wilted hydrangeas.  Most of the day it's too hot to garden, but the weather is too good and the days too long to read and laze in bed.  In August I dip in and out of the pool, longing for a rainstorm to restore my garden and give me an excuse to finish my book.  In February I'll be rubbing my stiff cold fingers and trying to remember what it felt like to be hot - too hot.  Right now?  It's just baking and sweaty and grim and dusty and flat and hot and ugly.  Splash.

But then come the long lovely August evenings, with the mountain turning bronze, then peach, then violet fading to velvet as we finish dinner outside, lingering because the air is like silk on your skin, and it's too beautiful to be inside.  Feeling the dark cool the air, each breeze a few degrees cooler than the last, until finally the chill chases us inside.  

And the brisk mornings when, shivering, I grab my pruners and head for the garden, staying out until the sweat drips in my eyes and the lawn has disappeared under a pile of branches and weeds.  I know, I know, if I don’t put them in a bucket they’ll just spread their nasty seeds and come up in the lawn, but I’m on a tear.  Literally and figuratively.  I am one of those people who'd rather use the tool at hand than walk into the garage for the proper tool.  Same goes for the bucket.  So if I don't remember it when I slip out the door...maybe I could put a brightly colored garden tub just outside each door, or scatter them artfully thru the garden.  Nope, not possible.  There is a solution to every problem, but sometimes the solution (like a Jack Russell terrier for gophers) is worse than the disease.  So no plastic buckets will grace (or disgrace) my garden.

Speaking of summer, I have a bone to pick.  I know I make my share of grammatical errors, I’m working on it.  But some are so glaring - like fingernails on a chalkboard.  

To wit:  We are not in the throws of summer - those would be lightweight blankets.  Or baseballs.  We are in the throes.  Of summer.  

And the landscape is not baron.  That would be your second cousin twice removed, the Baron of Wastewater, or a name for a cut of beef.   Knowing your cousin's intellectual capacity, I realize it's sometimes hard to tell the difference.  But barren is a description of his mind, or his land.  And Baron is that title you hope to inherit.

And it’s not a fit of peak unless it’s altitude sickness.  Pique, people, please. 

I do love websight, tho.  It's what happens when you visit too many websites, for too long.  I picture the red-rimmed eyes of a computer geek at 3 a.m., or the bleary stare of someone still on Facebook at 2 a.m. 

August makes me cranky. (can you tell?!?) Too hot to plant.  Everything needs water, and wilts anyway when the temperature gets over a hundred.  Snails travel in packs.  Herds of squirrels romp on the roof and jump into the peach tree, pulling off almost ripe peaches and taking one bite out of each, then tossing them on the ground.  

Deer devastate.  Not me, because I'm fenced, but let one shoot grow thru the fence and it's nipped cleanly off.  Ground squirrels move half a yard of dirt per day. leaving craters in the lawn and sinkholes in the paths.

Rats.  Cats.  Raccoons.  Ah, the back to nature promise of the suburbs that was so appealing has its drawbacks.  Did I tell you about the one raccoon that would come thru the dog door into the garage at night?  He ate the fruit punch jelly beans I'd left in the pocket of my favorite cycling jacket.  Ate right thru the fabric, the little bastard.  Pissed me off big time.  I understand the snails: I water, they multiply and  eat my plants.  That's fair.  And the deer whose only natural predator is the automobile.  Rats with good PR, Wally calls them.  But my favorite jacket?  Was that necessary?  Now I block the dog door at night.

I do still love to garden, even with all its frustrations, but I can't give you one good reason why.  Maybe that's the definition of passion.  Or obsession.