So green it hums

I went back up the hill again this weekend, and got my water fix. That story is up on Cowbird.

( I write there sometimes, too.)

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cooking by Braille: a note on recipes

I’m not really one for recipes. I collect cookbooks and read food blogs like mad, but when it comes to actually cooking, I’d say about 90% of what I make is free-form and spontaneous.

This fact surprises and impresses many people. Cooking by taste and feel seems has taken on a certain mythology that make people talk about it in reverent tones. I’m not being smug or bragging when I say that it really isn’t all that difficult. Every week I get a box of seasonal goodies (mostly vegetables) from a farm up the road. I don’t know what I’m going to get until the day before, and I don’t bother with a meal plan. I just listen to the food, and my belly, and I cook.

It took a while for me to get to this point. For years I cooked by recipes. Eventually I noticed that I never followed a recipe exactly; I always manipulated little things to suit my own tastes. A little more chile here, replacing sage leaves with basil because that is what I had and it tasted just fine. Over time I loosened up and gained enough confidence to really play in the kitchen. It’s an extraordinary feeling to walk into a random pantry and know that you’ll be able to make something delicious out of whatever you happen to find.

So, my goal with my “recipes” – which are more of guidelines than recipes – is to inspire that confidence, hopefully in less time than it took me. There will likely be few exact measurements, and many instructions that sound like like “add a little,” “not too much,” and “stir until it’s thick.” You will have a say in your food. Sometimes it won’t turn out the way you wanted, and that’s okay. That means you’re learning something. Over time you’ll figure out what foods taste good to you, what foods taste good together. And once you have the hang of it, I hope you’ll have me over for dinner.

Let’s start simple. Grab a tomato, cut it in half, sprinkle a little salt over it (I used black lava salt), and dig in.

Feeling more adventurous? Before you sprinkle the salt (so you don’t wash it off!), put the following on your cut tomato: the juice or zest from half a lemon; a little olive oil and/or balsamic vinegar; honey, grated fresh ginger, & ground cloves (just a touch of those last two, they are super-strong flavors); a few fresh herb leaves (basil, sage, thyme).

Carey, get out your cane

My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linens,
And my fancy French cologne…
(“Carey” by Joni Mitchell)

Up until this weekend, my only experience with beach tar was hearing Joni Mitchell sing about it. Turns out it bubbles up from under the beach, looks a lot like black sand, and will stain the hell out of your feet if you walk on it. Now I know.

I drove down to Santa Barbara to visit an old friend; the solo road trip to Southern California reminded me of being newly on my own, leaving Berkeley after class on Friday and spending just under forty-eight hours with my friends in LA before it was time to get home before Monday’s 8:00AM lab. Lately my life is a big ball of memory spiked with deja vu.

Saturday I had a few hours to myself at the beach while he worked. There’s nothing quite like the ocean to make you feel small and at peace.

I wandered around for a while, wading through the shallows and peoplewatching. It’s funny  how similarly different people react to the beach. Everyone smiles. Everyone splashes. Everyone settles down, relaxes in their own way; even the shrieking children. (and their parents)  Sun/salt/sand alchemy.

I think this used to be part of a starfish:

They regenerate; I wonder if it’ll grow a whole new body?*

There’s a fantastic tree in the cemetery at Mission Santa Barbara. It looks like a magnolia, but the sign says it’s a fig. It bears no fruit. The trunk has grown in such a way that it looks like two trees; one reaching out in lamentation or exultation while the other holds it up. It stands watch over the living as they visit the dead.

I bought a new St. Christopher medallion; patron saint of travelers. My grandmother gave one to me just before I went on my first big trip by myself, and I’ve been buying (and losing) them ever since. He was de-canonized a while back, but so long as the church sells medallions, I will buy them. It’s tradition.

And then we had the best tacos ever.

Tripa, adobada, lengua. Autentico.

* (I don’t really wonder that.)

Now what do you do with all those plums?

Munch.

Then jam.

Method/not-quite-recipe for plum basil freezer jam:

Wash and chop up your plums. I like to leave big chunks, because the fruit cooks down quite a bit and your pieces will shrink. Toss them in a big pot – ideally big enough that you only fill it halfway (sometimes jam sputters; you don’t want to get burned). Throw in some sugar. The nice thing about freezer jam is that you don’t have to worry about pH so you can make a slightly less-sweet jam if you prefer, which I do. Typically I start with enough sugar to coat all the fruit; here I used probably ended up with two or three cups of sugar for eight cups of fruit. (That may sound like a lot, but most recipes call for more sugar than fruit.)

Add some acid, to brighten the fruit up and for food safety reasons. Even though we aren’t using a waterbath canning method, we still want to discourage any little bugs that might be hanging around. I used the juice of two lemons, and then zested them, too, because why not? Also throw in a pinch of salt. If you have a lot of plums, make it a big pinch. Salt makes everything taste better; it adds vibrancy and dimension to sweet and savory things alike. Please don’t leave out the salt.

I think that basil complements plum flavors really well, so I also put in a bunch of basil leaves. The best way to do this is to bruise the leaves and put them into a metal tea ball, which is easy to remove at the end of cooking (the leaves detract from the texture of the finished jam). Since I don’t have a tea ball at the moment, I carefully cleaned a few stalks of basil (washing them then removing flowers and loose leaves), put them into the mix intact, and fished them out at the end.

Bring the whole mess to a simmer. You’ll probably want to start on medium heat to get the simmer going, but once you’ve got it going it’s best to reduce the heat to low so that you don’t accidentally scorch the bottom or have it boil over.

Let it cook. Stir it every now & then, making sure to get all the way down to the bottom so it doesn’t stick or scorch. If you have it on low heat, every ten to fifteen minutes should be fine. Cook it down until it has a jammy/saucy consistency: this will take a while. I cooked mine for about ninety minutes on low. Keep in mind that the jam will thicken a little bit as it cools, hence you want it to stay a little saucy in the pan. If you undershoot and it’s still runny when it cools, don’t worry. Just put it back over the heat and cook it down a little more. There are plenty of websites that can offer instructions on how to tell if it’s “done;” to be honest, I find that cooking by feel and taste works just as well.

Speaking of taste, taste as you go (just don’t forget to blow on the spoon a lot before you taste it – sugar gets hot hot hot). If your jam isn’t as sweet as you want it, add more sugar. If the basil flavor is strong enough for you but the jam is still thin, take the basil out early (I left mine in the whole time because I like really strong flavors). If it needs a little something but you can’t tell what, try adding a splash more lemon juice. If that doesn’t improve it, try a little more salt. One of them ought to do the trick. Tinker with it until it’s right. The best part of making your own jam is getting to make it taste exactly the way you want it to.

Let it cool and store it in the fridge or the freezer.

Notes:

  • This method will work with most fruits, and most fresh herbs. Think strawberry and sage, peach and thyme, mango and mint…
  • If you plan to water-can your jam, please use a tested recipe! Water canning requires the jam to achieve a specific pH, and I haven’t bothered with that here.

plums and memories

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

I went up to my childhood home this weekend, to harvest a treeload of plums and see a few old friends. My folks were out of town, so I had the country stillness to myself. It was hot and dry; I spent most of my time outside. The tree was loaded.

I had a couple of silent companions.

Up in the corner. Hi.

In a dark drainpipe. Hi to you, too.

After, I made my way to town to meet an old friend for swimming. I can’t get enough water lately. Rivers, lakes, pools, ocean, bathtubs in a pinch. There’s probably more nostalgia in that little fact than I give it credit for; I grew up on the river, near a lake, and though I often took it for granted they were always available when I wanted them. Now I live a few miles from the ocean, but I never spend any time at or in the water. Strange how that works.

We took a boat out to the middle of the lake and bobbed around in lazy circles.

Instead of heading straight back to town at the end of the afternoon, we followed a whim and stopped by the summer camp we used to go to. Years had passed since either of us had been there. The grounds hadn’t changed, but most of the people had. Everything was completely the same and totally different. We relived old stories as we drove back.

Later we rounded up a guitar and sang the songs we listened to over and over back in the day. The next day I left my old home for my now home. Instead of being let down the way I was returning from Minneapolis, I felt satisfied and happy to be return to my own little slice of the world. Even against the backdrop of all that sweet history, this new place is finally home.

Champagne cork stamps

It’s Friday the 13th! What better time to break out that bottle of champagne you keep chilled in the fridge for special occasions? Go get it, I’ll wait.

Don’t tell me I’m the only one who keeps just-in-case bubbly on hand.  If you don’t already, you should definitely start. You never know when something will need celebrating. Then, when you’re done celebrating (ie, sober), bust out a knife and a Sharpie and make yourself a little memento of the event.

What you’ll need:

  • champagne (or wine, but that’s not as fun) cork
  • craft knife
  • Sharpie
  • coffee and ibuprofen (optional, not pictured) to lift the champers fog

Instructions:

1. Draw your design onto the flat end of the cork. Make sure you draw it backwards; your image will stamp in reverse. Draw anything that strikes your fancy – I chose my first initial in lowercase.

2. Very carefully (see how that’s both bold AND italic? Really. Be careful.) cut your design using the craft knife. You can either carve out the space around the design to make the design stamp (that’s what I did), or you can carve out your design to have a circle stamp with your design on the inside.

I’ve found that the best technique is to trace around your design with the craft knife (use small vertical cuts with the point of the knife rather than a sawing motion, otherwise your cork will catch and tear). Once you’ve traced the design, gently cut away the excess cork from the sides using the long edge of the knife as shown. Don’t press too hard; it doesn’t take much, and you don’t want to saw off part of your design (though if you do, you can always cut the cork back to flat & try again).

3. Maybe you have some really tall shoes that need breaking in? Definitely put those on.

4. Cut away the outside (or inside, if you’re going for the photo-negative effect) until your design is completely exposed.

5. Grab an airline cocktail napkin and stamp away!

walk out whole

I lost the first iteration of this post between computers. That seems like a fitting start for the new blog, but we don’t need to get into that just yet. Let’s go hiking.

This time last week I was winding down a week in the Midwest with my oldest friend. We packed a lot into seven days – rivers, lakes, little towns, a road trip, cheese (Wisconsin doesn’t mess around with cheese). We celebrated her birthday, a cross-country move, and seventeen years of friendship. We processed the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new life. It was one of those weeks that we will talk about forever.

On the fourth of July, I flew back to California, to my little apartment, back to just me again. The only things waiting for me were bills and a hit-the-ground-running situation at work. In the space of a few hours I’d gone from a huge lovefest to the fetal position, weighed down by the gravity of the last year of my life. I got home Wednesday evening. By Friday afternoon, all I could think about was standing in front of the ocean and screaming into the surf.

I woke up early Saturday morning, grabbed some trail food, a camera, and my journal, and headed up the coast toward Point Reyes. The park holds a special place in my heart and my history. I was five or so the first time I remember camping there (and at all); my parents took my brothers and I on a backcountry trip to Wildcat Camp. It was only a couple of miles each way, but I remember how excited and strong I felt to be carrying everything I needed to live in a pack on my back. (Maybe not everything – I carried my clothes, sleeping bag, and teddy bear. Thanks, Mom & Dad, for picking up the slack!) Over the years I’ve returned to the park many times. No matter how I feel when I walk in, I always walk out feeling whole.

This trip was no exception. By the time I pulled up to the trailhead I was smiling. Four miles to the ocean; I left my headphones in my bag and let my mind spin a soundtrack out of song fragments and memories. I stopped to take photos; I’d forgotten how vibrant the woods are when you aren’t absorbed in a conversation or trying to keep up with anyone other than yourself. I’d forgotten how hard it is to be self-absorbed when a breeze makes the canopy dance.

Eventually, the ocean. Fog obscured the sun from about half a mile out, right where the waves hit my ears. It stayed warm. Other hikers littered the beach, so I turned off followed a winding trail along the bluff, passing occupied lookout points and pushing deeper into the brush. The trail narrowed, then widened again at each blackberry bush; I picked a handful and sang out loud just in case I was poking through a bear’s private stash.

On my way back I found a vacant clearing and sat down. The drive to scream was gone; my demons hadn’t needed an exorcism, they’d needed sweet ripe blackberries and balmy weather. I focused my camera on a group of cormorants drying their wings on a rock offshore and the viewfinder filled up with a flock of brown pelicans passing a few feet in front of me. They took my breath away; I missed the photo. I pulled out my journal to record the moment and missed a photo of the second group that passed just as close. Some things are best left to memory.

I took the long way back, climbing Sky Trail up into the hills. As I reached the top, I turned for a last look out at the water. The fog had lifted.