Thursday, November 3, 2011

Taking Flight

Yesterday at 4 p.m. as I crossed campus to teach my graduate writing workshop, I looked up to see a large egret like this one (but not this one) flying rather low and slowly from the direction of the student union across the tall trees and old brick dorms of the loveliest part of campus. I stopped and stared, and couldn't help noticing that no one around me seemed to notice anything, that is, no one looked up. We're so busy we don't often look up, it seems. Time seemed to slow down, the egret's progress across the sky was so graceful and leisurely, and although I'd been walking quickly it suddenly didn't matter if I was late to class. One young man did stop and asked me, "Are you watching that bird?" I said yes, I used to see them all the time when I lived in northern California. "Me too," he said, and it turned out he had also come to Tucson from California, and we both agreed it was wonderful to see the egret. I told him about the great blue heron Joe and I saw in our neighborhood last week while we were on a morning walk. It flew over and landed on a house, stood there resting a moment, then spread its wings and went on.
When we were at Humboldt State we lived outside Arcata on Mad River Road, which meanders, like the river it follows, through  lush green fields out to the sea. It's an area of dairy farms, where you can walk out among contented cows grazing in grass that grows thick and fast and buttercups up to your knees.  And egrets, dozens of egrets out in the pastures with the cows, doing whatever it is that egrets do.  I never took them, or the peace and beauty they seemed to embody, for granted. Their pure whiteness against all that rich green always made me pause and smile. That's what happened yesterday, when I saw the white bird against the bright blue sky, skimming over green trees and old red brick buildings. It was a gift, and I am grateful

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Beautiful in all stages of life

This is one of my favorite plants, Sophora secundiflora, also known as mescal bean and Texas mountain laurel.  These big, lush, flower clusters appear in the spring, delighting not only the eyes but also the nose with their rich, intoxicating fragrance. There's one just outside my office and several others around the campus, so for the few weeks they're in bloom I can instantly brighten my mood and take a vacation of a few seconds by closing my eyes and holding a bunch of them up to my face to inhale their glorious perfume. They don't last well as cut flowers, a day at best, so I try to find reasons to get out of the office and run errands in areas where I know they grow. The plant is a slow grower, which is why I haven't put any in the garden, though I may change my mind about that. Instant gratification isn't everything.
    The grandkids are intrigued, of course, because every part of the plant is poisonous, including the gorgeous seeds that come in shades of orange and red, from pale to rich and deep.  They also found that by scraping them against a concrete floor and then touching it to your skin, you can get a mild electric shock. Leave it to boys to discover something like that.
     What I've discovered is that the seeds make interesting jewelry.

Here's a bowl of them, with one of the unopened pods in the middle,

and here are some in my hand, after they've been drilled for stringing, so you can get an idea of the size.
     After you get them out of the pod (I just put the pod on the sidewalk and stomp on it - don't worry about damaging the seeds; they're tough), you need to drill holes in them, and unless you want to also drill holes in your fingers, you'll need a small drill press. It's tedious work, getting them lined up right, and be sure to tighten the press as tight as possible so they don't shift around. I used my Dremel tool and a fairly small drill bit. The other seeds, in and beside the pink bowl, are from the tranquility tree (I drilled these but haven't done anything with them yet, and haven't been able to find any information on the tree except that apparently the name's used for an online game, so I won't say any more about them right now, except that they're very interesting and attractive).
      After drilling, you can string the seeds like any other bead. I made these earrings, necklace, and bracelet using smaller brown glass beads in between the seeds, and I'm quite happy with them. Even if the temperatures are still in the low 90s (but hopefully cooling off as the week goes on), my jewelry can look like autumn!

Friday, October 14, 2011

It's Fall - Time to Knit

Time to Knit!

(No, I didn't knit the flowers, but aren't they lovely? It's a morning glory tree, not the regular vines, with semi woody stems, about 6 feet tall with flowers about 3 1/2" wide when open)
Even if it did hit 98 degrees in downtown Tucson today, the calendar says it's fall and I am so ready for warm hats and scarves and sweaters and socks - it was much cooler earlier in the week and I actually did wear socks to work a couple of days, which made me very happy. It's also creeping up on Halloween, a friend's  favorite holiday. He and his wife stopped by my office earlier today with Rory, who's almost 11 months old, so I could give her the pumpkin hat I knitted for her.
Doesn't look very impressed, does she? And she wasn't really into letting anyone adjust it to the proper rakish angle at that moment. Yeah, I know, today was hardly the weather for this kind of hat. But I had so much fun making it that I decided to use the last of some leftover yellow yarn to make a matching lemon hat. The pattern is at
I'll probably make more in different flavors but right now I want to make a couple of skull beanies for the 2 grandsons we'll be seeing this weekend. That pattern is at Can't post a picture yet because I haven't made them. It would be nice to be able to give them to them on Saturday, but I also have some sewing to do for their mom tomorrow, so it may not happen. :-(
      I also knitted some coffee cup cozies out of scrap yarn so I could be all eco-groovy and dispense with the little cardboard sleeves. The first were made from a small ball of orange acrylic, knitted on size 5 dpns, 42 stitches in K3 P3 rib. They're okay and the baristas think they're cool. Here they are on soda cans - they also absorb condensation. I think they're maybe a half-inch too tall.
I like this one better. It's 100% wool fingering weight yarn, leftover from a pair of socks I knitted a few years ago. It's 48 stitches on size 2 needles (I'm a rather loose knitter), 2x2 rib, about 3" tall. It's less heavy but does just as good a job of keeping the coffee warm and protecting my hand from the hot cup.
Then I also knitted a couple of dishcloths for my daughter, who loves them. It would be the perfect project for her to learn on, but so far I haven't been able to talk her into knitting for herself. They do get funky-looking after a while, so although I love the lighter colors, decided to try navy blue this time, for her and for my own kitchen.  44 stitches on #7 needles, beginning and ending with 2 rows of garter stitch and with 2 stitches in garter stitch up each side; otherwise it's all seed stitch, since the little bumps are good for scrubbing.
And that's how I've supplemented my video-viewing and passenger-in-the-car-and-on-the-bus time lately. It makes me happy and as my Grandpa would have said, it keeps me off the streets and out of the bars! (wink)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Brunch in the Garden

A couple of weeks ago we had some friends over for Sunday brunch. It was a lovely, not too warm day, and since one of them is highly allergic to cats (something he discovered while having a nice snuggle with Sophie - apparently he'd managed to make it to his early 30s without much cat contact, but she was furry enough to make up for all those lost years), we ate out on the patio.

Our friends brought a cantaloupe and some nectarines, both yellow and white, and I mixed up a little chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, kalamata olives, and fresh basil. The muffins are the cherry cornmeal muffins from Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café, but I forgot to put in the butter (I discovered it sitting melted in the microwave after they were already in the oven!), but they didn't turn out too badly, actually, just a tiny bit chewy, though still tasty.  They were even better with a little butter and homemade prickly pear jelly. The recipe for the muffins (butter included) is at
    The main dish, of course, was that thing that looks like a quiche, made from a recipe I've had since the '70s, back in the days when real men didn't eat quiche, so perhaps that's why it was called Switzerland Cheese and Onion Pie (apparently whoever came up with it thought the "real men" wouldn't know what it was). I used to make it a lot, but it had been many years, and I'd forgotten how good and easy it is. So here's the recipe:

Switzerland Cheese and Onion Pie
1 9" unbaked piecrust (deep-dish if frozen)
1 large onion, chopped
2 T. melted butter
2 c. cheese, shredded (I used cheddar this time,
     but Swiss, pepper jack, most anything is fine)
1 T. flour
3 eggs
1 c. half and half (or part milk)
1 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sauté onion in melted butter till tender. In a bowl, toss the cheese with the flour, then mix in onions, eggs, half and half, and salt. Pour into pie crust. Bake 10 minutes, reduce heat to 325 degrees, and bake 30 to 35 minutes longer, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it cool 10 minutes or so before cutting and serving.

There's nothing like a lovely autumn day, is there?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Sunday Joe and I went on the annual organic farm tour sponsored by Somos la Semilla (We Are the Seed). We went last year (you can see my posting about it at and had a great day, so were excited to do it again. Last year all the farms were off the I-19 corridor (more or less), around Arivaca, Green Valley, and Tumacacori, but this year they added four new locations around Patagonia (Arizona, not South American), and since we love going to Patagonia, we decided to just do that part of the tour since Patagonia is quite a drive from the other concentration of farms, east on I-10 and then south on state highway 83. The first thing we did was have lunch at our favorite coffeehouse, not the best lunch we've ever had there, but not bad.
 Across the street is the city park, which runs the entire length of the town proper, which means Patagonia really has two main streets, one on either side.
 It's an old ranching town, though there used to be mining nearby as well, and a couple of large companies are trying to bring it back - most of the townsfolk are very much against that, given the environmental damage caused by large scale open pit mining, which of course is what they want to do. The town has a real funky charm, with a lot of old adobe buildings in varying states of repair, and of course some newer buildings too, with the two kinds often nestled next to each other, cheek by jowl.
The town is small and very walkable. . . with interesting ruins.
 The first three places on the farm tour, however, were sort of a bust. The Patagonia community garden is near the middle of town, but there was no one there to explain anything so we just walked around looking at the plots - it's nice but we didn't learn much. Patagonia is higher and cooler than Tucson, so gardening is undoubtedly a little bit easier - some folks even had tomatoes, which are difficult to impossible to grow in Tucson. The blossoms won't set fruit once it gets into the high 90s.
 This is the drive back to the highway from Deep Dirt Farm Project. You won't see pictures of the farm because after seeing several over-directive signs (Tours are at 9, 11, 1, and 5. If you are late, wait for the next one.) we turned around when we got to the first parking area and decided it wasn't worth waiting at least two hours for. That's just not the way these farm tours are conducted, with such military precision. Maybe we missed something wonderful, but I guess we'll survive.
     We also visited the Native Seeds Search experimental farm. Native Seeds Search is a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving traditional crops of the southwest; check them out at I get my tepary bean seeds from them; I wrote about that a while back and you can see it at!/2009/11/gardens-yesterday-and-today.html. I didn't take pictures because, well, it wasn't all that scenic. It's a rough time of year here, with the summer stuff dried up and dying and the fall things not really started yet. But a nice young man showed us around and I learned a few things, which is always good. Then we headed up the road toward Sonoita and then east to Mias Chivas Goat Farm, which was definitely the high point of the day.
 Look at that sky lowering over the high plains grassland (parts of the movie Oklahoma! were filmed around here). You can see virga in the middle, rain that never quite makes it to the ground.
 I am totally in love with goats. They're smart, friendly, funny, and beautiful And their milk makes amazing cheese and other things, like soap. Who could resist this face? The folks at Mias Chivas were welcoming and informative and let us taste fresh goat milk and several different cheeses that they sell at the farmers' market in Patagonia at the community garden, every Sunday from 9-12. I bought some chèvre and a couple of bars of patchouli-scented soap. And then we headed home.
When we first got out of the car at Mias Chivas, a man who was leaving had said that if this was our last stop, we'd saved the best for last. He was so right!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cheesy Stuff

You probably didn't realize you were longing for someone to provide a grilled cheese sandwich tutorial, did you? I love grilled cheese in all its infinite variations, as long as it contains real cheese and not some "processed cheese food" stuff. The real keys to making a fantastic grilled cheese are to:
1. Use good cheese
2. Use good bread
3. Grate the cheese so it will melt better
4. Grill it on a heavy pan, like cast iron, at a fairly low heat. It's amazing how quickly it can go from golden to black.

So without further ado, here's how I made my most recent sandwich:
First, spread something interesting on one side of a slice of good whole-grain bread. In this case, I used my homemade pesto. You can find the recipe at . Then sprinkle on about 1/3 of the grated cheese you'll use for each sandwich. Layers of melted cheese help hold the other layers together. Here I used a nice extra-sharp cheddar.
Then add a layer of tomato slices (or crisp, thin apple slices, but not with pesto - that sounds weird).
 Sprinkle on half of the remaining cheese.
 Add some sliced onion (this would also be good with the apple variation). I like red or sweet onions, when the sweets are in season.
 The last of the cheese.
 Put the top slice of bread on and butter it.
 Flip it over and put it on the griddle (I love my cast iron) or in the pan, and then butter the other side.
 Grill on both sides on medium low as long as it takes, checking often. It's better to take a few minutes longer and enjoy perfection than rush and get unsatisfactory results. This one got a wee bit browner than I'd like but not enough to need to scrape any burnt stuff off (it looks darker in the picture than in real life).
Serve with a nice bowl of soup(this is my pumpkin-peanut butter soup; the recipe is at and some fruit. All those lovely flavors held together by the cheese are a real sensuous treat.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday Scones

Today I thought it would be nice to try some savory scones for a change. Actually, I felt it was something I should do, not necessarily something I wanted to do. Can you sense a certain lack of enthusiasm? I do, after all, simply adore sweet or at least semi-sweet scones. But returning to the source of my inspiration, Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café, I decided to try my own adaptation of her savory variation, Chile-Cheese-Corn Scones. Everyone has things in their refrigerator that they consider staples. For us, those include feta cheese and Kalamata olives (much more affordable now that both come in nearly quart-sized containers at Costco, which must mean other people also include them in the things they can't live without). We also have a lot of rosemary growing in the back yard, and so, this morning, we had Greek Scones, a rather delightful cross-cultural collaboration, I think.
Greek Scones (makes 9)
Non-stick spray
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal (fine-ground, not polenta)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
6 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter
2/3 c. buttermilk
1 large egg
1 cup (packed) crumbled feta
1/3 cup rough-chopped pitted Kalamata olives

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and spray it and a 1/3 cup measuring cup with non-stick spray.
     Place flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and rosemary in a food processor fitted with the steel blade; process briefly to combine.
     Cut butter into thin slices and distribute them over the top of the dry mixture. Pulse several times until butter is uniformly cut into dry mixture so it resembles a coarse meal.
     Pour the buttermilk into a 2-cup liquid measure and beat the egg into it. With the food processor running, pour buttermilk mixture through feed tube into the dough, then the olives and feta. Turn off the processor as soon as it all comes together (just a couple or few seconds - you don't want the olives and feta to lose all their identity).
     Remove the food processor blade and scrape any dough on it back into the bowl. Using the sprayed 1/3 cup measure, scoop out blobs of dough and drop onto prepared baking sheet, a few inches apart. I got 9; if you want bigger scones, you won't get so many and you'll need to bake them a little longer. I think these are the perfect size.
     Bake in the center or lower 1/3 of the oven for 20 - 22 minutes, or until little golden brown spots appear all over. Cool on a rack at least 15 minutes before serving.

I've found all these scones (including those I posted last week) keep quite well for a few days, so I'm looking forward to having one of these for lunch with a nice bowl of gazpacho when I go back to work. As you can guess, I've revised my opinion: savory scones can be absolutely delightful!

A few words about ingredients:

  • I don't always pay much attention to whether I use salted or unsalted butter, but in this case, because the feta and olives are so salty, I recommend making sure the butter isn't. 
  • And 3 tablespoons may seem like a lot of sugar - I was concerned about that myself - but it's actually just right; it seems to somehow balance and heighten the other flavors. 
  • Rosemary is one of my very favorite herbs, but it wasn't always. When I was growing up in Idaho, where it can get very cold, no one grows rosemary in the yard, so all we had available was dried rosemary, which in my opinion is worse than none at all. I suppose you could grind it in a coffee grinder, as we do some other spices and herbs, but if you just chop it or, worse, use the leaves whole, they never really soften up and are unpleasant in the mouth, no matter how much flavor they may add. They can even pose a choking hazard. I think 1 to 1 1/2 tsp. of dried dill would be an acceptable substitute (or 1 T. fresh) because although it won't taste the same, it is used a lot in Greek cooking and should be delicious with the feta and olives.

I hope if you try this recipe, you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. Now if only I knew how to say "Bon appétit!" in Greek!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Scones and More Scones

I've been doing more baking than usual lately, and I'm especially happy with the scones I've made from recipes in Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café. She gives only two actual recipes, with suggestions for variations, but unfortunately, the recipes aren't included on her otherwise quite wonderful website, . So I'll have to provide them.
I made these first; they're the Corn Scones on page 93. I added 1/2 cup of currants. We had them for breakfast with a scoop of cottage cheese, some carrot juice, and some wonderful Brazilian coffee that one of Joe's grad students brought back from a trip home. It was a great start to the day. Joe has commented on the interesting "topography" of these scones, their little hills and valleys and canyons, which reflect the buttery flakiness of the scones themselves. But they're not too buttery or sweet, unlike many we buy in bakeries - just buttery and sweet enough, and very satisfying. One of the nicest things about both these recipes is the way they make use of more than just all-purpose flour - the first with cornmeal and the second with bran.
These are the Ginger-Oat variation of the Bran Scones on page 92, with the addition of 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots. I adore ginger in both sweet and savory dishes, and I can happily eat chunks of crystallized or candied ginger just like candy. I also absolutely love dried fruits and keep several different kinds in the kitchen. They add so much to all kinds of thins, from oatmeal to baked goods to something as simple as a bowl of dried fruit and nuts for snacking. 
      In addition to their deliciousness, Katzen's method for making scones is wonderfully easy, using the food processor and no other bowls! In making scones, it's important that the ingredients are cold, especially the butter, to ensure flakiness, and the quickness of mixing things up in the food processor means things don't warm up too much and that the gluten in the flour doesn't get developed, which would result in an entirely different texture, and scones are all about texture. So, without further ado, here are the recipes.

CORN SCONES - makes 6 large or 8 smaller ones
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you like things
6 Tbsp. cold butter
2/3 cup cold buttermilk
1 large egg
1/2 cup currants (my addition)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray both a baking tray (I like to line mine with unbleached parchment paper and then spray it) and a 1/3 cup measure with nonstick spray.
     Place flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a food processor and process briefly to combine them.
     Cut butter into thin slices and distribute them over the dry mixture. Using several long pulses, process until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
     Pour the buttermilk into a 2-cup liquid measure; add the egg and beat with a small whisk or fork till blended; stir in currants. With the processor running, pour buttermilk mixture through the feed tube and as soon as the batter comes together - just 2 or 3 seconds, really! - turn off the machine.
     Remove the blade and scrape the batter that's stuck to it into the processor bowl. Use the 1/3 cup measure to scoop out blobs of batter and place them on the baking tray, leaving them as far apart as you can. I make 8 from this recipe and they're plenty big enough.
     Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown spots appear all over. Cool on a rack at least 15 minutes before serving.

GINGER-OAT SCONES makes 6 - 9 (because of the added dried apricots, I got 9)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oat bran
1/3 cup rolled oats
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup minced crystallized ginger
6 Tbsp. cold butter
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1/2 cup quartered dried apricots 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray both a baking tray (I like to line mine with unbleached parchment paper and then spray it) and a 1/3 cup measure with nonstick spray.
     Place flour, oat bran, rolled oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and crystallized ginger in a food processor and process briefly to combine them.
     Cut butter into thin slices and distribute them over the dry mixture. Using several long pulses, process until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
     Pour the buttermilk into a 2-cup liquid measure; add the egg and beat with a small whisk or fork till blended; stir in apricots. With the processor running, pour buttermilk mixture through the feed tube and as soon as the batter comes together - just 2 or 3 seconds, really! - turn off the machine.
     Remove the blade and scrape the batter that's stuck to it into the processor bowl. Use the 1/3 cup measure to scoop out blobs of batter and place them on the baking tray, leaving them as far apart as you can. I made 9 from this recipe and they were just the right size.
     Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown spots appear all over. Cool on a rack at least 15 minutes before serving.

If you've never made scones, these are wonderful recipes to start with. In fact, I can't say too much about  Sunlight Café. It's a wonderful book and worth the price just for the muffin and scone recipes, but Katzen gives you so much more! Bon appétit!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Comfort Food and Love: A Bit of a Rant

Last Thursday Joe had oral surgery preparatory to dental implants. It was out-patient surgery but he had general anesthesia, so he was pretty much out of it all of the first day and quite mellow with pain medication the second. His mouth is still sensitive, so he's not eating anything too chewy or crunchy just yet, though we're well past the protein shakes three meals a day stage.
     Then a couple of nights ago he asked for tomato soup, so I made some based on the recipe in The New Laurel's Kitchen, with just a couple of minor variations:
I looked for a link to that recipe but couldn't find one (there are links to other recipes from that book on the web, however), so here it is, with a few minor tweaks.

Creamy Tomato Soup
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 good-sized carrot, chopped
1 T. oil
3/4 tsp. dried oregano or 1 1/2 tsp. fresh
1 1/2 tsp. dried basil or 1 T. fresh (the general rule is to use twice as much fresh herb as dried)
4 cups cut-up tomatoes or 2 14 oz. cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 - 3 cups hot vegetable (or chicken) stock
3/4 tsp. salt or to taste (some commercial stocks are pretty salty)
pepper to taste
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 cup dried milk powder blended with enough water to make 1 cup liquid milk)

In a big pot, sauté the onion, celery, and carrot in the oil until soft. Add oregano, basil, and tomatoes and simmer gently about 5 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and simmer another 10 minutes or so.
     Remove from heat and use a slotted spoon to lift out the solids and transfer to a blender or food processor. My standard-sized blender is just big enough for this. Now be careful when you purée hot things - the pressure can build up unpleasantly and lead to a real mess. I take the clear plastic thing out of the middle of the blender lid and put a clean folded dish towel over the opening, holding it on with my hand. That's what I've seen the pros do on the cooking shows and it seems to allow enough air in to avoid explosions while keeping the lid on (literally). Blend until smooth and then return to the pot along with the milk to reheat a moment before serving.

     Yes, it would be much easier to open a can of Campbell's soup, and when I was a kid, that lovely red label did mean comfort - Joe still likes it but he says he likes mine better (I suppose he has to say that, but I do believe him). Certainly Campbell's is cheaper than homemade. But I just don't like canned soup. Maybe it's un-American, but that's the way it is. I don't hate it, at least not the tomato soup, but I really don't like it.
     When we were kids my grandmother bought Campbell's tomato soup and cream of mushroom soup. My brother absolutely adored the cream of mushroom. Maybe he still does. I thought it was okay. But now I truly do dislike it. I just don't understand the appeal; I can always taste it, no matter what it's in. It's the reason we don't have green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, though I'm sure there are recipes that don't involve cans of soup, cans of beans, and cans of fried onions. Maybe I just like green beans too much to subject them to such cruel treatment.
      Last night Joe asked for macaroni and cheese so I made a big pot of it, again from scratch. I don't know if I'd still like the Kraft version that I used to think of as comfort food years ago. Joe admits to a guilty fondness for it. Anyway, I was planning for leftovers and there were none.
     Tastes change over time and with exposure to different foods. The cheese sandwiches I used to eat with Campbell's tomato soup were made with Velveeta and Miracle Whip on spongy white bread and I loved them. I don't think I even tasted real mayonnaise until I left home. I was a white bread kid until I moved in with a roommate who only ate whole wheat and I thought, "Yeah, why not, if it's important to her?" Of course that was also in San Francisco, one of the world's great food cities, a city which changed my life in many ways, but Lorraine Brown, with her insistence on whole wheat bread, deserves recognition, wherever she is today.
     I find all this very interesting, and I am concerned about our country's continuing shift to more and more processed foods. Michael Pollan, in In Defense of Food, offers a very readable treatment of the topic, along with the sensible advice that we not eat anything our grandmothers would not have recognized as food. Maybe, given my grandmother's use of canned soups, that should be our great-grandmothers. In The End of Overeating, David A. Kessler, M.D. explains how the processed food folks get us hooked on their products by the sneaky and clever addition of way more sugar, salt, and fat than real food needs.
     To come back to today's title, food is one of the ways humans have always offered comfort and shown love, and providing real food just seems more loving to me, though I understand that our lives are busy and our culture has conditioned us to believe that processed foods are quicker and taste better. And I'm not so pure myself - I have my bad food flings, but mostly we do eat healthy food that doesn't come in boxes with ingredients very few of us can either recognize or pronounce. So that's my rant for today. I think it's past time for lunch.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dolce Italiano

For my birthday, back in April, our friends Patrick and Rita gave me a wonderful cookbook, Dolce Italiano by Gina de Palma, the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant. The first thing I made was the lemon sorbetto, which is better than the same thing at Macaroni Grill - although I liked what I had at Macaroni Grill enough to want to make my own ;-). But the latest thing I've made from this lovely cookbook is the fantastic Sweet Grape Focaccia (Schiacciata d'Uva).
     You can find de Palma's recipe at: . My play-by-play commentary follows:
Here's the Schiacciata on the cooling rack, looking rather less impressive than in real life (the browner-than-usual top is because for some reason it wasn't browning so I popped it under the broiler for a minute). It's very big, having been baked in the largest rimmed cookie sheet I have, 9" x 18", and amazingly rich and tender, since unlike the usual focaccia, it's sweet (but not too sweet) and made with 3 sticks of butter and 6 eggs. BUT, it is a very big pastry! De Palma says it will serve 10 to 12 but those would be quite large servings - this pan would give you 18 three-inch squares.
     It's a yeast bread, but very delicate, and with no kneading. I started it around 8  in the morning and had it ready in time to pack up a quarter of it to take to my mom's for lunch.

I like the rustic look of cooking parchment tied with yarn, but I learned in doing this that regular Scotch tape doesn't stick to parchment. Maybe stickers would work . . . . there must be something one could use.
 This is the first step, proofing the yeast in warm water and milk. I love the way the surface looks as the tiny bubbles appear and disappear, creating a sort of extraterrestrial or lunar map effect.

 Then you beat in 1 1/2 cups flour to make a sponge:
 and leave it for its first rise.
 Then it goes into the mixer bowl (where I will start it next time - de Palma has you using two bowls but that's just silly, since it means more dishes to wash) for the rest of the ingredients and another rise in a buttered bowl.
 After rising it goes into (onto?) the pan. You can see how puffy and delicate the dough is. I line my pan with parchment and then spray it with cooking spray, both because I'm not a big fan of cleaning up baked on stuff on cookie sheets and because, when it's done, you can just lift it out in one piece by carefully picking up the parchment extending out at the ends of the pan to transfer it to a cooling rack. Otherwise the large, delicate pastry may break - alternatively, you could just cool it in the pan.
 De Palma says to poke little holes in the dough with your fingers and put the grapes in, or you can just pour the grapes over the dough and push them in where they fall (my method). Then sprinkle the dough with some raw or turbinado sugar and bake it. I use Zulka, a raw sugar from Mexico that's less expensive than the raw or turbinado sugar at the natural food stores; it's available it the Hispanic supermarkets here in Tucson: El Super and Food City. (El Super is a fairly new addition to the supermarket scene here and I love it for its wonderful produce, like green garbanzos and verdolagas, and its amazing deli and bakery, as well as its reasonable prices. Joe loves it too - when we first went he said it was like going to a food museum and getting to take the exhibits home with us!)
 So here's the Schiacciata ready for the oven and in 18 - 20 minutes it's done.
     It's so easy and so delicious, and I think it would be wonderful with other fruits as well: cherries, sliced peaches or plums . . . . Di Palma uses Concord grapes but those are hard to find here in the Southwest, so I used seedless red grapes and they worked very well. Sometimes we get wonderful black seedless grapes and when I have the chance I'll try those. She specifies 2 cups of grapes, but I used a few more, since they were large grapes. I'd say, start with 2 cups of fruit and then add more if you think you'd like it.
     And I really do think you'll like it!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Oh my, it's been a long time since my last posting! Here's one thing I've accomplished in the interim.
This is a gift for a little girl who was born August 8.  I haven't actually seen her yet, not even a picture, but I'm sure she's lovely. Her mother was one of Joe's students several years ago and she and her parents became our dear friends.
     Now their family has added a generation, and I am reminded that in a way this photo also links generations of my family. My mother made the afghan squares some years ago when she was still crocheting and recently gave a box of them to me; I assembled them and added the edging, so in a very real way it's a gift from both of us.
     The oak rocker in the picture dates back to 1919. My maternal grandparents bought it - from the Sears catalogue, I think - when their first child, my aunt, was born, so that my great-grandmother could rock her in it when they came to visit. It wasn't an expensive piece and I don't suppose the experts on Antiques Roadshow would tell me it would make my fortune at auction, but I'm so happy it's still in the family. It gives me a warm feeling of belonging to something that started long before I was born and will continue through our children and grandchildren, generation after generation. I expect our friends in New Mexico are having similar feelings as they embrace the newest member of their family, and I hope that when she is wrapped in this blanket, she feels the love that went into it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

By the Beautiful Sea Part 2

It's good to visit Laguna Beach on a weekday when everything, including the beach, is less crowded, and if you're willing to walk a couple of blocks you can find a free parking space. We found ours up the hill a bit, across from the high school and some charming cottages; there are five of these in a row.
     Our first destination was the beach, after we got some coffee, that is. En route to Starbucks we found this welcoming sign to make us smile.
Happily caffeinated, we made our way to the beach. I took off my sandals and rolled up my jeans to wade in the surf; I got my jeans wet anyway, but didn't mind.
We couldn't tell if the tide was coming in or going out, but it washed up a lot of seaweed and then arranged it artistically in the foam. Nature's art is so much better than ours (but we keep creating anyway).
The beach is in the middle of town and draws all kinds of people (and seagulls, of course),
and there are good public restrooms with outdoor showers for hosing off the sand and salt. As we headed that way I heard someone playing the "Blue Danube Waltz" on an accordion, so I dug in my bag for a dollar and followed the music. The accordionist apologized for not accepting tips! We chatted a few minutes and I told him that earlier Joe had remarked that for some reason, every time he drives Sam's (my uncle's) car, he hears the "Blue Danube Waltz" in his head.
     On the way back to the car we came to two lovely churches, side by side. The first was Episcopal and not open on a Wednesday afternoon, but we thought the second, the American Catholic Church, Saint Francis by-the-Sea, might be.
We didn't actually know what the American Catholic Church was, but we soon found out. As we approached the entrance, we met a woman who said she was about to open it up for a tour and we were welcome to join, then she let us in and talked with us while she lit the candles and turned on some music. It turns out that her grandfather, Percy Wise Clarkson, had built both this church and the Episcopal church next door, where he had first served but then left that pulpit to follow his own vision by establishing the American Catholic Church in the early 1930s. It was revolutionary and far ahead of its time in its insistence on racial and gender equality and Bishop Clarkson's ideals, now familiar to many of us since they've become part of New Age philosophy and spirituality, are beautifully recorded on the rafters of the sanctuary.
The sanctuary is tiny, seating about fifty people at most, but beautiful, and most certainly a sacred space.
While we waited for the tour group, which turned out to be another couple plus their tour guide, Bishop Clarkson's granddaughter, Jessica deStefano,  told us more about her grandfather, his church, and its current bishop, who is ill, so there are no masses at this time, though the church itself is open on Sundays from 9 to 10 for meditation and prayer. We learned later that Jessica is an artist - Joe found her website,, where you can see her and some of her lovely work, some serious, some delightfully whimsical.  We wound up joining the tour and enjoying it very much. The other couple were very nice, as was their guide, Lorraine Brown, who turned out to be a U of A graduate; we knew we looked familiar to each other! I tried to find her online but couldn't, nor any listings for tour guides in Laguna Beach, but I think she'd be a wonderful one, if only we knew how to get in touch with her.
     When we got back to Sam and Vera's, Joe googled American Catholic Church; it does exist outside Laguna Beach but Saint Francis by-the-Sea seems to be independent of the national organization, which is very small. It is located at 430 Park Avenue, just up the hill from Laguna Beach's main street, and although there's no website for the church itself, it's mentioned on several others. The contact phone is (949) 497-4678.  It's well worth a visit. 

     Our serendipitous tour of Saint Francis marked the end of a great day of exploring: hiking, picnicking, strolling along the Dana Point harbor, wading in the surf, and not going into a single shop or restaurant, except for that one necessary brief stop at Starbucks! How wonderful it was to top it off by spending time with friendly and interesting people who introduced us to a piece of history we hadn't known about and its beautiful setting. Mark Twain was right: "...nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people."