I’ve been busy lately! Coupla weekends ago I had a quintessentially East Bay foodie day with The Witch. First we went to a chicken workshop (yes we have urban chicken fantasies!) at EcoHouse, where I got no good photos of the chickens, but this friendly duck came to investigate my camera:

After that, we dropped by the People’s Grocery garden party, where we ate an embarrassment of padrón peppers & admired this lovely kiwi vine:

Then I felt kinda crappy for a week & didn’t do anything interesting. I think maybe I successfully fought off a full-blown cold.

Once recovered, I had to come up with a goodbye card for the incomparable Steve Woodall, who is leaving (wah!) to run the Columbia Center for Book & Paper Arts after nurturing our own San Francisco Center for the Book from its very beginning. I have always been in awe of Steve’s big, big heart. He is one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet, & somehow manages to keep tons of stuff running smoothly with the most easygoing manner… I just don’t know how a person becomes like that. If I’m lucky maybe I’ll get to be a little more like him in my next life.

Anyway, you can imagine the pressure was on since I knew that about a hundred killer book artists were all making cards for Steve too. None of this running out to buy a card & scrawling something in it with a ballpoint pen for this crowd, no way. Not when John DeMerritt is making one of his famous boxes to put all the cards in. I was so distracted by the card situation that I forgot all about bringing food to the party until like half an hour before I had to leave. Doh! The fridge looked pretty bare & I thought I’d have to run out & buy something on the way, but you know, that’s not how I like to do things if I can help it. I spent too many years of my life as the person who brought chips & salsa to potlucks. (Although for the record, let me say at least it was always Casa Sanchez. I did have standards.)

Here is Mother of Invention Salad. We have fuyu persimmons on the tree right now, so I grabbed two of those, plus an apple & half a head of some speckly chicory (sorry I can’t remember the name of it—you could use radicchio or anything similar). Mandolined the fruit, squeezed some lemon juice over it. Sliced the chicory; the tops of the leaves were too soft to do on the mandoline, so I did that with a knife & then hit the mandoline when I got closer to the stem end. Tossed it all with red wine mustard vinaigrette (thanks again, Orangette!) & then thought it needed some green, so I ran out into the garden & pinched off some pineapple sage for garnish. Done!

Of course, when I got to the party it turned out everybody else had brought chips & salsa, bread & cheese, & wine. Occupational hazard of the book arts: no way in hell do you have time for anything else. Now I remember why I always used to do the Casa Sanchez thing… & why I don’t edition books anymore!

Next night, it was the reception for Road Trip at San Jose Museum of Art. I hadn’t seen the show yet so was quite eager to find out how it looked. I have to say I’m pleased as punch to be in this show. Curator Kristen Evangelista did a fabulous job; how often do you go to a big group show like that & really enjoy most of the stuff in it?!

It was a fun opening too. Five Dollar Suit was playing bluegrass, & the food was thematic, reaching its conceptual peak with these teeny tiny chicken fried steaks, sandwiched in biscuits with gravy, here modeled by the talented, hardworking hands of Noah Lang & Donna Ozawa.

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What are we going to do to stop her from posting salads all the time?
Do you think an intervention is in order?
What if we ask her to post some flowers or something? She likes flowers. Probably as much as she likes food.
As much as she likes salad?
Yes, I think so.

The last sweetpeas of the season.

They kept going all the way into October! Pretty cool.

Red leaf lettuce, treviso, Warren pear, red onion, Iberico cheese, sherry vinaigrette….

Hey! What happened?
She may be beyond help.
I think it’s her coping mechanism. She’s just trying to make it to Election Day without having a nervous breakdown. Like the rest of us.

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Japan photos must wait, because we are awash—no, drowning—in fruit. All manner of stone fruit, strawberries, melons, lychees… & now the backyard contributes blackberries! I grew up picking blackberries every summer & have accumulated quite the Blackberry Knowledge, which I shall now share with you. Yes, there are actually some tricks.

Respect the thorns, & know yourself. You have to get into a careful & graceful state of mind to pick blackberries. No sudden moves, no jerking around, no careless shoving branches aside in order to reach your berries. If you would rather not be patient & slow & exacting, then by all means wear thick, tough clothes (like heavy denim) that cover as much skin as possible, & boots on your feet. On the other hand, it’s possible to pick blackberries in nothing more than a flimsy sundress & flipflops, as I did today. It has to do with personality, mood, & experience. In any case, however, you should not wear gloves; more about that in a minute.

Get down low & look up to spot the berries. Try it; you’ll be amazed at how many berries are hiding underneath all those leaves!

Most common blackberry-picking mistake: picking them too soon. A sure way to end up with a lot of mouth-puckering, super-sour berries! No! Arg! Second most common mistake: picking old berries. Here are the clues:

You want berries that are 100% black, no red anywhere, not even dark reddish purple.

Look at the texture of the berry. Perfectly ripe blackberries almost literally glow; they are glossy & shiny, & each individual globule of the berry is fat & round because they are all full of juicy goodness. Past their peak, those same berries will be dull, flat black, &/or the little globules will start to shrivel & wrinkle. (Often at that point they will have invisible but horrible-tasting mold, too.) The color & shine of ripe blackberries is what calls me from all the way across the yard & inside the kitchen: “come pick us right now!”

Helpful illustration: the red part circled on the left indicates a berry picked too soon. The shriveling part on the right indicates a berry past its prime.

Now here is the most important part, & why you can’t wear gloves to pick blackberries: you need the sensitivity of your fingertips to feel the amount of resistance when you try to pull the berry from the stem. It should just about fall into your hand at a touch. I usually nudge the berry to one side to see if it will come off, rather than pulling straight away from the stem. If you have to put any effort into pulling—& I do mean any—then the berry is not ripe enough. Think of picking a small object up off a table, not detaching two attached objects; a blackberry should feel like you’re just moving it from where it sits on the stem.

Also, a ripe berry is not hard; with practice you can tell by touch whether it is the right degree of tenderness. With this delicate touch you will also avoid bruising the berries—useful if you’re doing anything with them besides popping them directly in your mouth.

All this fine-tuned awareness, dancing between thorns with your fingers, & the willingness to let go of each berry if it won’t yield immediately to your touch, is what makes blackberry picking a very meditative experience. There are other methods, but I find this the most satisfying.

Here is what you want your bowl of blackberries to look like: midnight with stars. Every little nodule should be plump & glossy, each berry tender, the whole bowl fragrant with blackberry perfume—the essence of summer.

(In case you’re curious, that’s a stone fruit clafoutis in the picture at the top. No blackberries in it.)

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Five Bay Area girls went for a stroll through our beloved redwoods. We grew up in, respectively, El Cerrito, Berkeley, San Leandro, San Francisco, & Mill Valley (heh). As we were remarking on the rarity of being in such extremely local company, Mrs. Art Stove told us how she recently confronted some out-of-towner who had picked a California poppy from a neighbors’ front yard. “I couldn’t believe she picked a California poppy! & then she was twirling it around, & every time she twirled it, it was like she was twisting a dagger in my heart!” Mrs. Art Stove confronted the woman, informed her of the illegality of her actions, & asked her to Please Stop Twirling That Poppy!

Listening to this story, my other friends all nodded with complete sympathy & understanding, until I timidly ventured, “wait… is that really illegal? How come I’ve never heard that?” Four pairs of shocked native Californian eyes turned upon me. What?! You didn’t know it’s illegal!?

Things like this always confirm one of my more insidious suspicions: that there are certain important bits of information that everyone knows except me, & nobody tells me because they assume I must already know. Like the time (years ago, but the trauma remains fresh) I was wandering around Oakland Chinatown with Chinese Scholar & the Witch, wondering where we should eat, & they said, well we could always go to Vi’s, & I said “What’s Vi’s?” whereupon they both looked at me as if I’d said I didn’t know you could get to San Francisco by crossing the Bay Bridge. They felt so sorry for me that they practically carried me straight into Vi’s & of course I loved it, but then too soon after that it closed & I never got to eat there again. Alas!

Anyway, back to the poppies: seeing how mortified I was, & not wanting to make me feel worse, my friends quickly recovered from their shock & patiently informed me that there is a huge fine if you’re caught picking poppies, because it’s the state flower & even though it’s not endangered now, it used to be, & so on & so forth. I said, “but even from your own garden? I mean, I would never pick a wild one, it just wouldn’t occur to me…” See! they said, this just confirms that you actually know you’re not supposed to, you have the correct instinct & you’ve just forgotten the details!

Still bewildered, I continued, “I’ve picked a poppy that I grew in my own yard…” to which Mrs. Art Stove replied, “but you probably cooed over it & admired it & respected it & put it in water & made a painting of it, you didn’t Just Twirl It Around!”

So it went, & eventually we talked of other things. But I remained quite disturbed, not to mention skeptical about not being allowed to pick a specific flower that wouldn’t have existed if I didn’t plant it in my own garden. As you might expect, I have now done a little googling, & am almost just as bewildered to find that my very smart pals have been had by a myth! The law actually prohibits cutting any plant from a highway, but says nothing about California poppies specifically, let alone ones growing in your own yard.

See, I thought Mrs. Terwilliger would have drummed it into my head if I wasn’t allowed to pick poppies! By the way, speaking of Mrs. T & childhood environmental education, am I the only person who still snips those plastic rings from soda cans? It’s actually a very satisfying thing to do on many levels, not just environmentally: the plastic is a pleasurable consistency for cutting, there are just the right number & variety of holes to make the job interesting but also very quick (we’re talking seconds), & I always make a little game (not a very challenging one, but I get my thrills where I can) of making the fewest cuts necessary while ending up with a whole piece, no loose bits.

I’m still kinda anxious about the fact that I had never even heard of this poppy myth before. What if it had turned out to be true? Once at a pie-baking party, someone said, “I didn’t know you could keep butter in the freezer.” I was astonished. I never in a zillion years would have thought I should go around telling people they can put their butter in the freezer. I started wondering what kinds of things I might not know that she would consider obvious—so obvious that she wouldn’t realize she had to tell me. Somehow I have to let go of this way of thinking before it drives me completely nuts.

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Welcome to Cooking With Weeds!

Weed Recipe #1: Allium Love

The wild onions love one corner of the yard & every year appear more numerous there. We are trying not to be alarmed.

Time this so you have fresh buckwheat fettucine just cooked when you want it. I think I dropped it in the water a couple minutes before the capers went in the sauce.

Chop all these on the fine side & cook em up in a large pan with olive oil & butter:
2 shallots
a bunch of wild onions
1 bulb of fresh green garlic
[Edited: oops, I forgot about the pine nuts. A small handful.]
about a tablespoonful of capers
Italian (aka flat-leaf) parsley

You start with all the alliums (sorry if I’m butchering the Latin language; I never learned any of it). [Edit, cont’d: put the pine nuts in after the alliums.] When they’re about done you add the capers, & a minute or two later sprinkle on the parsley, turn off the heat & throw the pasta in. Mix it all together with a little more olive oil, & serve with Pecorino & some onion flowers on top.

We served this with salad of spinach, strawberries, & caramelized onion, the essence of which I have already blogged.

For dessert, Weed Recipe #2: Meyer Lemon Mint Garden Granita, a hybrid between two of the granita recipes (Lemon & Mojito) from David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop.

If nobody has ever told you this before, take heed: DO NOT EVER PLANT CHOCOLATE PEPPERMINT in the ground. Always keep it in a pot far away from the actual dirt of your garden, because “invasive” does not even begin to describe the voracious habit of the insatiable mint. We will go to our graves regretting the day we innocently stuck the tiny little mint plant in the ground. That shit is everywhere now. If you lift up a corner of the cardboard sheet mulch, sprawling seeking reaching mint roots are waiting there to send up a zillion shoots of everlasting, unstoppable mint.

Of course, this means we are never lacking in mint. The garden is also kind enough to give us lemons. So all I had to add for this was sugar, water, & a functioning freezer.

Put in a pan:
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
About 2 lemons’ worth of zest, microplaned directly into the pan

Boil that until the sugar is all dissolved, then take it off the heat, dump in a cup of mint leaves & cover the pan for a few minutes. Then remove the leaves, squeezing them out a bit to release more minty goodness.

2 cups water
1 cup Meyer lemon juice
a few fresh mint leaves, chopped fine

Stir it all together, pour into a wide casserole-type container (I use a very deep pie dish), & freeze for about an hour. Then you take it out & fork the frozen bits from the edge toward the middle, chopping & mashing with the fork. Put it back in the freezer, & repeat the fork action every 15 minutes or so until you end up with a nice pile of fluffy ice crystals. (Lebovitz has much more detailed instructions.) Garnish with yet more mint leaves (after all, there is an infinite supply) & a strawberry slice, if you like.

Totally unrelated to weeds, I have been seriously on the matzo brei. It was the first thing I was able to cook last year after the terrible pelvis fracture, so it claims an even fonder nook of my heart than it did before, which is pretty fucking fond. I basically follow Ruth’s recipe, but my dirty little secret is this: you really don’t need remotely that much butter. I probably use 1/3 of what she calls for. Salt too, a little less. What can I say, I’m a Californian.

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It’s spring! Today I planted sweetpeas.

Next, the lovely lettuces. Plus I have to figure out where to put the rest of the sweetpeas. Of course there’s always more than can fit in the designated sweetpea location. Of course they would fit if I could ever restrain myself to just one 6-pack. Of course I am totally incapable of such restraint—how could I choose between Black Knight & Purple Streamers, especially when they would look so excellent together?

This planting activity was quite the accomplishment for my long-suffering body. I’m quite proud of myself, even if I am icing my hand right now. (How, you may ask, do I do that while blogging? Let’s just say I have developed some special talents…)

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What to do when faced with the early-January depleted larder? (What exactly is a larder? Does it mean the same thing as pantry? Don’t I really mean “empty fridge”?) As if the holidays weren’t horrifying enough on their own, the end of the year further tests my already-fragile sanity by depriving me of both farmers market & regular swimming. After all that, throw in a few days’ torrential rain & the worst PMS in memory, & the world should be relieved I barely left the house all weekend. Is it any wonder there was No Plan, no ingredients, no real prospects of any kind for dinner last night? Worse, we had already used our Go Out Instead card the night before.

But fear not! The spirit of chop suey is alive & well around here, & after having moped around the house all day I rose to the challenge.

Here is what I rescued from the forlorn, echoing chambers of the fridge:

half a red onion, the cut surface shriveling with dehydration
3 shallots in good condition
the middle of a celery bunch, still reasonably stout
4 endives, also fine
a bag of bulk lemon fettucine, keeping the faith from our last trip to the Bowl
1 small Meyer lemon from the garden
a tiny nub of Pecorino

We also had about a quarter loaf of the famous Tartine bread, but, I kid you not, it had to be more than 2 weeks old. (Don’t worry, I wouldn’t ever serve this to a guest, except in an earthquake situation.) I started by aggressively trimming off all the crust & dried-out edges, then stuck the salvaged middle of the bread in the Cuisinart to make crumbs. I did similarly aggressive editing on the onion, then chopped it & the shallots & celery into some vague approximation of a mirepoix. (Did you know that Trader Joe’s is selling mirepoix in a plastic container? It’s actually labelled Mirepoix, & the carrots & onions & celery are arranged in these cute layers in the plastic—has “mirepoix” entered the general vocabulary all of a sudden?! I saw that right after a server in a restaurant used the word while describing a dish to me. She totally expected me to know what it was. I feel like I only happen to know what mirepoix means. Do all of her other customers know? Are we all expected to know mirepoix now? Does Rachael Ray have something to do with this?!)

Breadcrumbs went into the pan with olive oil & melted butter, & were joined by a generous handful of pine nuts from the freezer. When they were all nice & toasted I set them aside in a dish. Into the hot pan with more oil went the wannabe mirepoix. When that was done, I dumped in the just-cooked pasta along with the sliced endive, mixed it all around until the endive seemed to disappear (it’s that cooked translucence thing), gave it another generous drizzle of olive oil, & served it up. Crumbs & pine nuts on top, & then microplaned lemon zest & Pecorino on top of that.

Not bad for a scavenged dinner.

Too late, I realized we also had a few capers knocking around the bottom of a jar; I woulda chopped them up & added them to the mix too.

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Remember those Romano beans? I don’t think we planted enough of them.

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We got some very robust “Musica” Romano bean seedlings from Kassenhoff Growers at the Temescal Farmers Market. Here’s what they looked like 11 days ago:

Here is what they looked like 8 days ago:

Here they are this morning:

I realize such stupendous growth is not news to some of you more experienced gardeners out there, but wow, for this polebean virgin it’s quite exciting. Especially since I’m really needing things that demonstrate visible & rapid progress.

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