Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve Tomatoes

At the closing of the year we are still putting tomatoes in the nightly salads: just a few to make them last as long as possible. Of course, in dark December they don't have the rich flavors of August, yet somehow the minimal spark they provide pulls together the lettuce, spinach, and arugula into a unified burst of flavor.

The hanging vines out in the garage are picked over and bedraggled, so this won't be going on much longer. It's been a good run.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Reds and Greens

Evergreens in the house are an essential part of Christmas and just a few simple touches can evoke the season. It's even better when the glossy branches and bright berries can be gathered from the yard.

We don't really have enough to form a whole wreath or swag, nor am I willing to put in the time making them, but it feels so good to cut a few branches from the berry bush and the little redwood tree in the front yard to fill out the inexpensive store-bought greenery.

The seasonal backyard produce is also thematically correct with a range of dark greens set off by soft reds. Even the tomatoes from the garage are in harmony. (And we've been very happy to use the backyard bounty in simple meals of soup and salad to balance all the rich once-a-year fare: fruitcake, eggnog, exotic cheeses, nuts, and fruits, etc.)

Out in the garage the hanging tomatoes (the few remaining branches of the summer plants, rescued from the first frost in late November) form a makeshift Christmas tree with colored bulbs attached. Like the inside tree, this one will not be taken down for several weeks to come -- not until the last harvestable morsel has been gathered -- as we try to wring every bit of delight from this all-too-brief season of celebration.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Fragrant Winter Soup

We ended the shortest day of the year with a warm, fragrant, and comforting winter soup that started out as a minestrone but didn't make it that far. The mushroom broth enlivened with vegetable juices and just a touch of fennel seed was so good that B. didn't want to weigh it down with beans and pasta. So it ended up as a simple vegetable soup. A spinkling of fresh grated parmesan cheese, and some homemade whole grain bread rounded out a cozy meal.

Along with garden chard, the backyard contributed some blue potatoes to our solstice dinner. This was a second surprise harvest from the little patch that won't quit. There was already one volunteer harvest earlier this year and then, on November 26, I dug up the pile pictured above. All of these went into tonight's soup, which was already special but became even more so.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Solstice Eclipse

Despite the gloomy weather, Bay Area skywatchers and mere curiosity seekers like myself are tracking tonight's total lunar eclipse. It is a very rare event because it falls on the same day as the northern winter solstice -- the moment at which the Earth's north axis is tilted farthest from the sun, giving us our shortest day and longest night of the year, and heralding the first day of winter. According to NASA Science News, there's only been one other lunar eclipse on the northern winter solstice in the last 2,000 years . . . and that one was back in 1638.

According to information from Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center, the eclipse begins -- or began, because it's underway now -- when the Earth's shadow starts to slide across the full moon at 9:30 p.m. Monday night, December 20 (tonight). Complete coverage -- known to astronomers as "totality" -- lasts from 11:40 p.m. until 12:53 a.m. on Tuesday, December 21, and the eclipse should be over by 2:00 a.m.

The photo above was taken at 10:40 p.m. from our backyard. The splendid full moon of the solstice can been seen through a thin veiling of fog. It looks like the Christmas star, but don't try to follow it!

I took this follow-up photo at 11:50 p.m., ten minutes past "totality." What I saw -- or thought I saw -- and tried to get a picture of was the last tiny fingernail clipping of light disappearing behind a thicker layer of fog. I don't know why it was still visible at that point in the process. When I enhanced the photo there was indeed a small pale smudge in the center, but I couldn't get the enhanced photo to upload. There are far better photos and videos of the whole event all over the internet; nonetheless, it's nice to keep a personal vantage point on the cosmos from one's own backyard.

Besides tracking the eclipse, I also marked the solstice by hanging the first section of this marvelous calendar which provides a beautiful wall poster for each quartile of the natural year: winter solstice to spring equinox, spring equinox to summer solstice, summer solstice to fall equinox, and fall equinox to winter solstice.

The reddish circle on the left edge is the solstice lunar eclipse, which marks the beginning of another cycle of light in our journey round the sun.

Note about the calendar: The link goes to the 2010 calendar at Amazon but I know the 2011 version is available. I bought mine at Whole Foods.

Note about the time stamp: Blogger has an interesting habit of marking the time the first draft of a post is saved. I started this post earlier in the evening and saved the draft, worked on it some more later and didn't actually publish until a few days afterwards. But the date and time stamps show the time of the first draft.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Leaf Lady

I think I know how the squirrels and the woodpeckers must feel when they have laid in a good supply of acorns.

The backyard leaf pile has reached a satisfying height. The top layer, a bright cascade of colorful confetti, comes from two flowering cherry trees across the street. I spent about an hour raking them up at the invitation of a neighbor who was glad to have his yard cleared and, in the bargain, donate the leaves to a worthy cause.

Everything in this pile comes from various trees on our short street, one block long, plus a few bags I've collected during our nightly walks around the neighborhood. Feeling only slightly eccentric, I carry a grocery bag, a dustpan, and a flashlight, and whenever we come across a lush drift of leaves covering the sidewalk, I scoop them into the bag. Leaf Lady strikes again.

Leaves are free mulch, free fertilizer, and -- eventually -- free soil if you are willing to wait a couple of years for everything to break down. I use them in the compost bin to form alternate layers with kitchen scraps and also to cover dormant garden beds.

As my greed for leaves has become more widely known, some neighbors on the block have started leaving them in our front yard. Now I have two leaf piles!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finally! A Frittata di Trombetta di Albenga

It took about five years to get from the first planting out of seeds for the dramatic Italian climbing squash, Trombetta di Albenga, to actually featuring some in a meal.

Year 1: Discover a packet of Renee's Garden seeds at a local drugstore. Plant some out of curiosity. Become so intimidated by the gargantuan plants and strange elongated fruit that none of them get used for food. Forget about it for a couple of years.

Year 4: Find the old seed packet with some seeds left in it. Plant some out of curiosity, wondering if they will grow. They do. Vow that this time the squash will make it into a meal. It doesn't. Vow not to plant Trombetta di Albenga again.

Year 5: Discover some seedlings of Zucchetta Rampicante at a local nursury. Plant some out of curiosity. Find out that Zucchetta Rampicante is Trombetta di Albenga by another name, or such a close cousin that there is no discernible difference: long thick vines twining up eight foot poles and across a trellis, bearing numerous sleek green fruit that dangle in mid-air as they grow larger and longer. Give up, accept the dictates of fate, and welcome Zucchetta/Trombetta into our family cuisine.

Most of this year's harvest found its way into the summer batches of green soup. But finally, in early December, we used the last tender squash in a delicious frittata. The recipe comes from the attractive Italian food blog, Not Only Pizza. The secret to getting the best flavor is to slice the squash into thin rounds or half circles.

Another secret is to use really good cheese, such as Asiago. Here's the recipe:

Frittata with trombetta di Albenga
1 lb. trombetta di Albenga
2 cloves of garlic
7-8 datterino tomatoes or cherry quartered or cut in half
3-4 fresh basil leaves
4 eggs
1/2 cup shredded provolone, scamorza (not smoked), Asiago or a cheese of your choice
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
Slice the trombetta thinly with a knife or a mandoline. Heat up 1 Tablespoon oil in a nonstick skillet with 2 cloves of garlic. Add the squash and cook it until tender, about 15 minutes mixing it often.
When the squash is cooked, turn it off and add the tomatoes. This is already a good side dish.
To make the frittata, eliminate the cloves of garlic, put the cooked squash in a bowl, add the basil, the eggs, the shredded cheese and a good pinch of salt. Mix well.
Heat up 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a non-stick skillet and pour the zucchini-egg mixture. Cook at low medium heat for about 10-15 minutes uncovered or until the bottom becomes golden brown.
Place a large plate over the frittata and turn the pan upside down then slide the frittata back in the pan and cook it for other 10 more minutes. Serve it warm or tepid, it’s good either way.

Here's what the squash looked like in late September, still sizing up on the vine.

And here's how it appeared on our dinner table at last!

(Full disclosure: It turns out that another really important secret for a perfect frittata is to use a non-stick pan so the whole thing doesn't fall apart when it gets flipped over. But that's just a minor detail in the long saga of Trombetta di Albenga, which is not only abundant but really quite delicious.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Have Nut Loaf. Will Travel.

Every Thanksgiving we go "over the river and through the woods" to take part in a pot-luck feast of food and friendship. "Over the river" happens in Healdsburg, where Highway 101 crosses the Russian River as it runs west to the sea, and "through the woods" happens in southern Mendocino County, where fragrant groves of bay laurel, live oak, Doug fir, madrone, and second-growth redwood cloak the rocky hills between Cloverdale and Booneville.

It's not grandma's house we're headed for, but a thriving counter-culture conclave founded in 1970 -- forty years ago and counting -- where former Peace Corps and Vista volunteers and friends have been tending (organically, of course) a large acreage of ancient apple trees.

The Thanksgiving pot-luck is well established, with the same people bringing the same dishes year after year. The hosts can determine the menu simply by asking around to verify who will be coming, uncovering any gaps that might need to be filled. Generally speaking, you can always count on M.'s hor d'oeuvres, T's traditional Czech Hoska (a showstopper braided bread), B.'s stir-fried veggies, P.'s Waldorf salad, and N.'s classic pumpkin pies from her grandmother's recipe -- to mention some of my personal favorites.

The photo above shows a few of these old-reliable dishes, plus the time-tested vegetarian entree, the nut loaf.

It's our responsibility to bring the nut loaf, an obligation not to be taken lightly.

This year, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving we got the usual phone call confirming that everything was on as planned, and the usual not so subtle hint about our role:

"Are you guys coming? If you can't make it this year we could come down there and get the nut loaf . . . ."

"We're coming! We're coming!"

And we did come, arriving a bit late as usual. As we lugged the heavy cardboard box full of nut loaves and mushroom gravy out of the trunk of our car, several friends came to greet us, rushing down the steps of the 100 year old farmhouse:

"Hooray! The nut loaf has arrived!"

Here's how to make this enthusiastically received holiday classic. It first entered our repertoire decades ago during college days in Berkeley, from Richard Hittleman's Yoga Natural Foods Cookbook, now out of print. My copy vanished long ago so I'm not sure how many adaptations have crept into our version over the years. Once change I do remember introducing is to use wholewheat toast cut into cubes, rather than bread crumbs -- so much easier!

1. Assemble all the ingredients:

1 and 1/2 cup walnuts, very finely chopped or blended
3 cups toasted whole wheat bread cubes (toast the bread then cut into small cubes)
1 cup celery, very finely chopped
1/2 cup onion, very finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons oil
1 cup tomato juice
1/4 cup parsley, very finely chopped*
Salt and pepper to taste

2. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
3. Beat together eggs and oil, combine with tomato juice.
4. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Don't be afraid to use your bare hands to make sure everything is thoroughly mixed together and liquids are evenly distributed.
5. Pack mixture into a well-buttered loaf pan (for a round loaf use a Pyrex bowl) and bake 45 minutes to an hour in a preheated 350 degree oven. Cover with tinfoil for the first 30 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a table knife into the center -- when hardly anything sticks to the knife it should be done. The loaf should have a well-browned appearance.
6. Run a table knife around the edges of the pan and turn the loaf out onto a plate. Pour mushroom gravy over the top, garnish with cranberry sauce and parsley*. (The cranberry sauce is important for fullest holiday splendor and taste. The parsley* is important because without it the dish can be mistaken for a dessert.)

And here's how to make the mushroom gravy, an absolute must accompaniment. (Sometimes I think we should be greeted with cries of "Hooray! The mushroom gravy has arrived!") These are B.'s instructions:

1. Put a pound or so of cleaned whole mushrooms in a pot. Cover with water plus an inch or so.
2. Bring to a boil.
3. Add juice of one lemon, some white wine or sherry, and five or six pepper corns.
4. Boil for 20 minutes until you have a dark broth. Strain and set aside.
5. Make a roux: Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and add some finely grated onion. When the onion is soft, add three tablespoons flour, blend until smooth.
6. Mix one cup of the mushroom broth into the roux. Add as much as needed to get the desired consistency of gravy. Slice up some of the whole mushrooms to add to the gravy.
Save any leftover broth for soup.

*A note about parsley: For the last several years the parsley has been coming from our backyard. All I had to do is run out the kitchen door and gather as much as was needed from generous swaths of volunteer plants. But this year, no parsley. It felt like cheating to have to buy some. Must plant more.