Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Brown is the New Green

Driving through Tilden Park the other day I was amazed to see this sign. I just  had to stop the car and take a photo.

And sure enough, as I gazed up the hill to the Brazil Room , I saw a huge swath of unwatered lawn, quickly turning brown.

The BRAZILIAN  ROOM,  presented to the East Bay regional Parks by the country of Brazil as a gift of friendship

Browning grasses and drought-tolerant plants are the theme of our California summer and we're all conserving water in every possible way (more on our recently completed drip irrigation system later)— so I was encouraged to see that the Park service is also cooperating.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Food In Jars

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Marisa McClellan, author of Food in Jars and Preserving by the Pint. She was signing her new book (Preserving by the Pint) at the huge Saturday Farmers' Market in front of the Ferry Building, and I was  representing Book Passage which was providing her books for sale.

Saturday Farmers' Market at the Ferry Building

As the market swirled around us on that beautiful, sunny day, Marisa filled me in on her life story. She was born in Los Angeles, moved to Portland with her family at about age 9, spent a happy adolescence in Oregon and moved to Philadelphia to be with her grandmother, where she married and has lived ever since. She has become an expert on canning and preserving, published two books on the subject, does freelance editing and writes a blog called  Food in Jars.

While we chatted, Marisa's fans would wander up to our table, recognize her from her blog or Face book page, and tell her how much they enjoy her blog and which recipes they had tried in her first book,  Food in Jars,  published by Running Press. The constant favorite was the Strawberry-vanilla jam. I confessed that I was a reluctant canner and didn't eat much jam anyway. She countered by explaining that most recipes in her books are not jams and jellies but ingenious combinations of various seasonal fruits and vegetables. In the new book she emphasizes preserving in small batches and often doesn't use the canning pot at all.  She suggested one summer recipe that really appealed to her followers—and to me: Zucchini Butter with Garlic and Fresh Thyme on page 85 of Preserving by the Pint. The veggie spread is delicious on bread or crackers and can be used as a quick sauce for warm pasta. I was sold, and since zucchini was bursting forth in the market and my herbs were in need of a trim, I made her recipe on the Fourth of July as my contribution to an annual block party in Walnut Creek. I decided to add savory as well as thyme.

My Winter Savory

And my Thyme

Zucchini Butter with Fresh Thyme and Savory

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
5 garlic cloves, gently smashed
2 large zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
5 to 6 sprigs thyme and/or savory
1/2 teaspoon finely milled sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place a large skillet over medium heat. Place the olive oil and butter in the pan and allow them to melt together. Roughly chop the garlic and add it to the pan. Add the zucchini. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the zucchini has begun to soften. Strip the thyme and savory leaves off their stems and add them to the pan.
   Lower the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring often. The goal is to cook the liquid out of the zucchini and melt it into a flavorful, spreadable paste. If at any point, the zucchini starts to brown and stick, add a splash of liquid...and lower the heat a bit more. The total cooking time should be right around an hour.
   Divide the cooked spread between 2 half-pint jars. It will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge or a year in the freezer.

Gemelli Pasta with Zucchini butter, green beans,  corn and basil

The next day I followed Marisa's advice and used more of my zucchini butter on warm pasta with a healthy addition of green beans and corn kernels, also from the farmers' market. It was quick and delicious, but unfortunately my supply of the zucchini butter is almost gone! I'll need to make more and next I want to  try her Peach-barbecue sauce and Thai-basil pesto. I may become a canner yet!

Monday, May 26, 2014


John holding two mated Long-Eared Owls in Wisconsin,  c.1985    (photo courtesy of Prof. Robert Rosefield)

                                                  John Bielefeldt  1945-2011

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Vitamin Pills in the Compost

Yesterday when I saw a pile of vitamin pills that Dean had dumped in the green bin, I remembered the guest blog about vitamins in the compost which I had written for Jeanette Baird's Studio last year. I thought it would be fun to post it on my blog, and it might help me decide what to do with the old vitamin B tablets nestled among the pea pods.

Vitamin B pills discarded in Greenbin

                 Jeanette titled her post A Little Green Science Experiment and this is my contribution:

Last week Jeanette emailed me that she had decided to clear out her family's outdated vitamins.  She came across a website that advised her to "place them in hot water until they dissolve, add coffee grounds or kitty litter, place them in a ziplock bag and toss them in the garbage."  So in the spirit of curiosity and adventure, she followed the directions exactly and documented her little science experiment.

Old vitamins bubbling away in hot water in Jeanette's kitchen

Sensing that there had to be a green alternative, she consulted her "Green Gal"--me. I immediately thought of composting them, so when I got done chuckling, I decided to check what the experts had to say.  Interestingly, in all my respected sources, there was zero information on the effect of vitamins added to compost.  Neither the comprehensive Rodale Book of Composting, nor The Berkeley Ecology Center, not my favorite guide, Composting for Dummies, had a word to say on the subject.

Finally, it was the Internet that provided some down to earth suggestions for vitamin disposal, and some novel ideas for their transformation - i.e. bead projects, noisemakers or a base for coloring paint.  Others discourage throwing them away at all, since it is debatable whether vitamin pills actually lose potency after their expiration date, which may be merely a gimmick used by manufacturers to sell more vitamins.

The Garden Web  has a lively forum with opinions and suggestions on discarding and composting vitamins.  The participants maintain that since compost is, after all, a mélange of organic matter made up of kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, etc., why not add unwanted vitamins into the mix.  These little capsules seem to have all the requirements for good compost material--they're small, non-toxic, water soluble and full of nutrients.  Why wouldn't they decompose with the other stuff, eventually turning into humus, which will in turn lighten, aerate and naturally fertilize the soil in the garden.

An Ecology Center employee told me that it's fine to experiment with home composting but the City of Berkeley doesn't want vitamin pills in their green waste.  That means I can't dump unwanted multivitamins in my green bin!

 So I removed the B vitamins Dean had dumped in the green bin and instead, I made a cleansing facial scrub. 

Preparing cleansing Facial Scrub in the food proocessor
Grind vitamins up in a food processor and mix them with yogurt, avocado and lemon or lime juice for a gentle exfoliating mixture you can use on your face and body. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bird Nests Galore

Steller's Jay perching on our deck railing, surveying the area for a nesting site

Last spring chestnut-backed chickadees built a nest in this birdhouse. This year they're back. And in addition a pair of steller's jays have built a nest in the rafters above our basement deck directly under the upstairs deck, only a few feet above the chickadee's birdhouse. The nest started with a few precarious twigs placed on a diagonal brace.

The very beginning of nest building
The pair of Jays gathered twigs from nearby bushes and placed them carefully like pick-up-sticks.

Gathering twigs for the nest

After a few days work, the nest was miraculously completed. Unfortunately, we have no view of the interior.

The completed nest

Jay facing his nest in the rain—on squirrel alert

There is also squirrel activity on the deck, much to the consternation of the jays

The curious squirrel peaks in our kitchen window

Meanwhile, the chickadee chicks have hatched and are peeping hungrily inside the birdhouse. Both parents fly to and frow, in and out, bringing food to their noisy young. If I come near the swaying house they flutter around making warning calls.

Mother chickadee returning with food for her chicks

We hear chicks peeping loudly inside the birdhouse while the parents enter and exit

Chickadee protecting his house with chicks inside, while I snap pictures nearby

Another mom sitting on her nest, also made of twigs, outside Jeanette's house in Walnut Creek

                              HAPPY EARLY MOTHER'S DAY TO ALL

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mulligatawny Soup

Quote from Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey

Here I am in Agra in my pinafore, gazing at the Taj Mahal

Traveling in India in 1972, I did not have the pleasure of tasting mulligatawny soup, at least that I can remember. In those days I was more interested in art history and dance than in food, so most meals in India are long forgotten. What remain with me are the vibrant flavors. the scrawny chickens in Delhi,  the red-hot vindaloos served in Goa, and the heavenly lobster in Kerala on the Southern tip. Though I was careful to eat only cooked food, no unsterilized water, and no yogurt, I got bolder as the months-long trip wore on, and by the end I was indulging in street food with no disastrous results. I came home craving the flavors of the places I had visited.

I  took this photo of a fish market in Goa in 1972

After traveling for three months in India and Nepal, I returned to Berkeley, an aficionado of Indian food and culture. But  unlike today, there were no Indian restaurants in my neighborhood and few in San Francisco. I can only remember The North India Restaurant, specializing in tandoori dishes, in San Francisco and The Khyber Pass in North Oakland offering nearby Afghanistani cuisine.  I seldom indulged. In addition, there were few Indian cookbooks available. The famous Time/Life series," Foods of the World," published a lavishly photographed volume in 1969 called Foods of India by Santha Rama Rau, which I devoured. Then, in March 1975, when Sunset Magazine printed a recipe for "India-style Chicken Soup (Mulligatawny)" in a section called "You use every bit of the bargain chicken," I tried it. After faithfully completing the numerous steps in the recipe, I found the result to be quite special. The finished soup had a haunting, exotic curry-like flavor and texture that I had not encountered before.

     At this point, I have collected  many Indian Cookbooks, both recent and rare, so for another description of mulligatawny soup, I referred to one of my favorites, Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni. She writes, "I first tasted this soup sixteen years ago in an elegant restaurant in Frankfurt Germany... Contrary to what the name suggests (mullaga means pepper, and tanni means water or broth), what I tasted was an exquisitely delicate broth, faintly laced with spices that brought back the familiar aromas of home...
     Because of its unorthodox origin, Indian cooks have had a field day exercising their creative genius with it. As a result, there are innumerable interesting variations of this soup around the world today...       
     This is the one occasion on which I set aside my spices and use a commercial curry powder blend, because then only am I able to re-create the flavor and aroma that once captured my senses."

Longing recently for something exotic, I unearthed the old Sunset Magazine recipe in my files and set about adapting it to my present tastes and habits. This meant using less butter, leaving out the flour, and using freshly cooked garbanzos instead of canned. The idea of utilizing the canned garbanzo liquid didn't appeal to me.  Here's the adapted recipe:

simmering chicken legs in broth with veggies
First, I made "stewing broth" as instructed. I used two large whole chicken quarters, though the recipe calls for one whole chicken. I simmered them in 5 cups chicken broth and 3 cups water, with one small onion, a stalk of celery, one carrot, 1 t. salt, 2 cloves, 1 T. coriander seeds and one half cup grated coconut. I skimmed fat from the broth and boiled it for 30 min. until the chicken was just done. Then I  removed the skin, took the meat off the bones, reserved it and strained the broth, pressing on the contents through a metal strainer. That was my broth.

I chilled the meat and broth til I was ready to make the Soup: In a soup kettle, melt 2 T butter. Add 1 medium sized onion, finely chopped, 2 cloves minced garlic, 3 t. curry powder, 1/2 t. turmeric and saute until onion is soft. I decided to add three thickly sliced, parboiled carrots to the soup at this point. Stir in prepared broth, and simmer for 15 minutes. Whirl 1 can garbanzo beans with their liquid (or about 2 to 3  cups cooked bulk garbanzos) in the food processor with some water to thin the mixture. Add to soup with all reserved chicken. Cook about 15 minutes, stirring often. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add prepared brown basmati rice, lemon slices and chopped cilantro to soup bowls before serving. (serves 4)

The recipe, printed in 1975, concludes: "At 49 cents a pound, our whole chicken cost $1.47, serving 4 for 37 cents each." 

Mulligatawny soup adapted from the Sunset Magazine recipe

My two favorite Indian cookbooks, pictured below, are: Julie Sahni, Classic Indian Cooking, New York, William Morrrow, 1980 and Madhur Jaffrey, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. Both authors have written many other excellent books on Indian food and cooking.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Feral Cat Rescue

Cat lover that I am, I've been feeding a feral cat in Tilden Park for the past few years. The site happens to be across from the Botanic Garden on Wild Cat Canyon, where I have spent many happy hours. See Here.

My original feral friend in some blackberry brambles, eating nibs I provided 

     This sweet, gray cat is very timid, but she's a survivor. On clear summer evenings when I would come to visit, she would be sitting alone in the gravel parking lot in the dwindling sun. I never saw her during the day when the lot was bustling with cars and people visiting the botanical garden. Any motion, even laying down a plate of food, would scare her off; but when I kept my distance she would come back and eat.
     Then, about six months ago, the feral population increased alarmingly. Cats seemed to wander in from the neighboring Tilden golf course, siding the parking lot.

Tilden Park habitat for feral family near golf course
Across the road from feral encampment

Over four months ago two adorable fluffy gray kittens arrived on the scene. They were less skittish than the adults and they would sit on the rocks or a branch waiting for a handout. They didn't seem to associate with my favorite, shy feral friend. In fact, they would scare her away from the communal food bowl, so I started to divide the food and place the containers in different spots, allowing all the cats to eat peacefully.

On days when I arrived at dusk, I noticed another woman observing the cat activity and she warned me not to leave food containers around because park rangers might be alerted. She explained that it is actually illegal to feed ferals and I could be cited and fined if caught. I wasn't too worried, since weeks ago I had approached a ranger in the parking lot about the growing feral population and he told me to contact an organization that dealt with the problem. He implied that the park service would not do anything. However, my new friend would pick up any plates that I left, and on days that I missed, she would feed the cats. She had named them all and was totally familiar with their habits. We commiserated about their difficult living conditions and agreed that we should call Fix Our Ferals, but I never did.

 Saturday evening I was chatting with a young couple relaxing in the parking lot after a long hike. They had spotted the two kittens playing in the woods near their car. I was telling them the saga of the feral encampment and bemoaning the fact that we had yet to call any organization, when a blue Prius pulled into the lot with a bunch of cage traps in the back. The woman who got out was wearing a  "hopalong" tee shirt, (a bay area rescue organization,) so I knew what was happening.  She explained that she worked for Fix Our Ferals, and that Eli, my fellow cat-caretaker, had finally called. Soon sweet Eli also arrived and Liz got the traps out and started smearing irresistible cat food on newspapers lining the bottoms. She placed a trap in the woods and one of the kittens entered immediately and was caught. Liz covered the cage with a blanket and put it in the car. There was no struggle at all. Then she repeated the operation with another cage, and in went the second kitten, which we also blanketed and carried to Liz's car. She caught one more cat, but my favorite was too street-smart or cautious to enter a trap.  I left at that point asking Liz to email with the final results. They caught only those three that evening, but they were returning the next night to get my elusive gray. She sent me the following snap shot of one of the kittens in the basement of her home, waiting to be taken to a clinic to get neutered. Both kittens were males.

One of two male kittens patiently awaiting his fate

Sunday evening I couldn't stay away.  I arrived in time to see Liz and Eli catch my favorite and one other cat. Liz took them away to her "kitty ranch" to join the other captures waiting to be spayed or neutered at a clinic in San Francisco. At this point  Eli had decided to take the three adults and had persuaded her sister and nephew to take the two kittens. She couldn't stand the thought of returning them to their precarious outdoor feral life, which is what would occur if no one offered to adopt them.  I admired her for her generosity, knowing she already had seven cats.

By Thursday all the cats had been spayed and neutered. It was not a minute too soon because it turned out that the two females were pregnant and  about to deliver eight more kittens. The vet euthanizes the fetuses when he spays the adults. I was invited to attend the send-off and I went to Liz's home in Berkeley, also known as the Kitty Ranch, to see them all depart for their new homes. Eli promised to keep in touch, with news of the socialization process.

Elusive Gray, my favorite, minutes before she left the kitty ranch for her new indoor home

Each evening as the sun starts setting I feel the old familiar tug on my heart strings, and I have the urge to drive up to Tilden with food for my Kitties. Then I remember that they are safe and well fed and I can relax. Perhaps one day they will be socialized, but I still remember those wild creatures as they were— lurking in the woods and racing around the driveway as dinner was served.

 I'm grateful to Fix Our Ferals— life is tough in the wild