Friday, May 30, 2008


May is National Bike to Work month, and I did my part a couple times. My house is almost exactly 16 miles from my office on my biking route (according to my bike computer), which takes me a little over an hour. Traffic lights can sometimes add 5 to 10 minutes. It's a long, boring ride, completely flat and almost completely straight. Four miles of it is on the Yolo Causeway, the elevated freeway that crosses the Yolo Basin, and the bike lane actually shares the roadway with the cars, separated only by a three-foot wall and a chain-link fence. Another long section is through West Sacramento, the land of semis, trailer parks, and rent-by-the-hour motels.

I pledged 120 miles for May, and as of today I will have done 107. So I just need 13 tomorrow to make my goal! I didn't actually bike 120 commuter miles, though. Loris and I did a 35-mile loop a couple weeks ago, and a lot of the rest is from running errands around Davis. I’ve actually only biked to work twice this month (that I remember).

For a year and a half, I actually rode the bus from Davis to Sacramento and back, every day. It added about an hour to my workday, but it gave me a lot of free time to read. It was fine, except for occasional days when it would add more than an hour to my day, when I would grit my teeth in frustration. The final straw came when the Tower Bridge into Sacramento, which is the usual bus route, was closed for construction. My commute was starting to regularly add two hours to my day instead of just one. Since I bake all of my own bread and grow my own vegetables, I just couldn’t afford to lose that extra hour. I started driving to work, and I never went back.

It’s funny how things in life often come full circle. For the next month, a portion of I-5 will be closed through Sacramento. I generally use this section of I-5, but it’s not essential to my route, and I can easily just drive a different way to work. Unfortunately, the impact of this construction is going to affect traffic throughout the area. I’ve even heard rumors that commuters should expect to add up to an hour to their commute. Like I said, I only go about 16 miles. An extra hour is just crazy. So now the plan, generally, is to bike to work in the morning, then schlep myself and my bike over to Amtrak for the 15-minute train ride back to Davis. I won’t be able to put it into action completely until July, because of the stupid rules for parking at my office – so update in July! Right before I leave for Italy!

I do all this inter-city riding on my bee-you-tee-ful Specialized road bike. What about my crappy bike? I still use it around Davis, and it comes in handy. The baskets fit a TON of stuff – backpack, books, groceries, veggies from the garden, climbing gear, etc. The main drawback is that it is really heavy. But it’s good exercise, right?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In which I remember my bread-baking origins

I've been baking bread for more than 10 years, but my hobby has changed dramatically since I first started in high school. My mother bought a bread machine when I was younger, and I remember delicious, fluffy loaves coming out of it. The only issues were that the paddle left a big hole in the bread, and it tended to be a bit soggy because it had a cooling off period inside the machine where it would basically steam itself after the baking cycle was done.

My family was crazy about challah, the sweet braided Jewish egg bread, typically covered with poppy or sesame seeds (poppy seed were our favorite). The bread was really expensive, so we tended to eat it as a treat. My mother bought a few bread machine recipe books at one point, and it suddenly occurred to me that I could actually make challah for a fraction of the price of buying it.

I honestly don't remember my first attempt to make challah, but I suspect it went well or I may not have stuck with it. The recipe I used was extremely easy and forgiving, and yielded excellent results despite my occasional mistakes or my forgetfulness. Since the machine mixed the dough, the only thing I needed to do was braid it, let it rise, do a quick egg wash with a sprinkling of seeds, and stick it in the oven. After 30 or 40 minutes, we almost always pulled a hot, sweet, delicious poppy-seed covered loaf from the oven, and my family would devour it eagerly, most of us with a huge spread of "butter" (I'm a child of the 80's - as far as we were concerned, margarine was butter and we used the terms completely interchangeably).

I do vaguely remember my later attempts to diversify my portfolio, most of which failed miserably. Challah was probably halfway between a cake and a bread, and the eggs and copious amount of sugar made for an excellent texture despite my lack of technique. Making real bread, on the other hand, was a disaster, leading mostly to what my dad called doorstops. I especially liked whole wheat bread, which has an even greater tendency towards heavy, dense results.

Over the years, my skills have been honed quite a bit, thanks in large part to the likes and dislikes of my Italian husband who is very particular about his bread and continues to offer me plenty of encouragement - and who will eat what I bake no matter what. I eventually gave up my bread machine for a mixer (since I never used the machine to do the actual baking anyway), then acquired an even bigger more powerful mixer after I burned out the engine on my standard-sized one (but I really miss the beautiful yellow color of the old one).

I also purchased a fibrament baking stone, which I love dearly, and which I honestly believe has helped compensate for my 70's era electric oven.

Thanks to a few books and a few websites (see sidebar), I learned a LOT of new techniques, and I've come up with a really basic "recipe" I'm using these days for some simple, white Italian-style bread with what I hope is good flavor, light holey crumb, and a crunchy crust. My husband seems to approve, and I'll take whatever appreciation I can get.

Tuesday morning musings

We have had cooler weather here the last week - after a week of record hot temperatures. We also had Memorial Day weekend, and I was so busy that I didn't have time to get out to the garden almost at all. I only spent about an hour there yesterday, just enough time to prune and water the tomates, pull a few weeds, and plant the green beans and yellow summer squash that I just bought.

I counted my green bean plants - if you include each individual plant, we have 50. I'm even considering planting more, because they're so versatile. We make green bean salads, put them in pasta sauces, make soups, add them to giardiniera, and I can freeze them. I could try pickling and canning them, too. This year I got smart, and I've planted them around the edge of one of my beds for easy picking.

I think the peas are going to have to go soon. They're drying up, and I haven't seen any new flowers in a while. We have only a handful in the fridge, so we'll probably make a pasta sauce with them.

The garlic and shallots will be coming out soon - I just turned the water off to them yesterday. I need to decide what I'm going to plant there when it's available, and also what I'm going to plant when I pull out the peas. I already have plenty of tomatoes, and I'll have plenty of peppers by the end of the week (I hope!). I may leave the space for the peas open for the melon I have planted over there. And I suppose I could plant either more eggplant or a winter squash where the garlic is. The problem is that there's really not enough room for a winter squash, because it's pretty close to the zucchini, which I know is going to get big. So I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I'll have to give it some thought.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Another pea recipe

I made up this recipe last night to use what is starting to be the last of the peas from our garden. Next year, I'm considering planting more peas, and possibly planting climbing peas. I can put up a fence or something for them to grow on. Right now, it's really difficult to pick them, crouching over and trying to reach the middle of the bed. I see other people picking them easily from their garden paths, and I'm jealous.

For this recipe, I used all the peas I picked in one day, which came to about 2 cups shelled. I also used up half of a bag of frozen zucchini (maybe another two cups?), a chunk of frozen basil (a few tablespoons, probably), and 2 or 3 of our small leeks. This can all be adjusted according to taste or what you have on hand.

Green risotto (with leeks, peas, zucchini, and basil)

One largish zucchini and 1 or 2 smaller ones (I used maybe 2 cups of chopped frozen zucchini)
A couple of cups of freshly shelled peas
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil
Some leeks
Veggie broth
2 cups of arborio rice
Some wine (.5 to 1 cup?)
Basil (fresh or frozen)
Parmesan cheese

Finely chop some basil to garnish, and set aside.

Shell the peas (if you haven't already). Set aside.

Chop up the large zucchini and bring to a boil in a pot with broth(about 4-5 cups). Boil until soft, then puree with a stick blender, standard blender or food processor. Return to pot and keep on low on the stove.

Chop up the leeks and saute for about 4 minutes in olive oil in a medium to large saucepan. Add the rice and stir until it starts making clicking sounds, about 4 minutes. Add the wine and stir until it is absorbed.

Start adding a couple ladle-fulls of the zucchini/broth puree, slowly stirring the rice with a wooden spoon while it absorbs the liquid. Each time you can see the bottom of the pot when you stir, add some more liquid and puree. After about 5 minutes, add the peas so that they will cook along with the rice. If you prefer the peas to be very well done, add them when you start adding broth; if you prefer them less cooked, add them a bit later.

It will take anywhere from 25-45 minutes for the rice to cook and absorb all or most of the liquid. After 25-30 minutes, start tasting for doneness. If you don't use all the liquid, it's ok - if you need to add more liquid, add water, broth, wine, or anything else you think of to create a different flavor.

Add the chopped basil, and pass the parmesan cheese at the table to add on top. Enjoy!!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cabbages, winter 2008

We had a good year for cabbage. Or maybe not, depending on your point of view of cabbage. As I believe I mentioned in an earlier post, I planted 6 green cabbages and 6 red cabbages this year. I don't remember the exact dates, but I planted the green ones quite a bit later than the red ones last fall/winter.

The red cabbage was wonderful. It all formed beautiful purplish, mottled heads, and after I realized that it would grow small side heads after cutting the main one, like broccoli, I was careful to leave enough of the plant for this to occur. We actually still have these mini-heads in our fridge, but I'm not sure we'll get around to eating them - they may be headed for the compost pile.

I had read about cabbage heads cracking, but never experienced it until this spring, when it happened. I wondered what it would look like - would it be difficult to see the crack, so that you wouldn't notice until it was too late, and the head was rotting fromt he inside out? I carefully inspected my cabbage every time I went to the garden just in case. Then one day it happened - the last red cabbage had cracked wide open, like a flower bud blooming. It was definitely obvious, beautiful, alarming. I harvested the cabbage immediately and we made some delicious buttermilk cole slaw (with the buttermilk from my home-made butter campaign).

The green cabbage didn't do as well. I thought it was forming heads, and we did get one really beautiful head (which I gave to my mother), but when I checked the other heads later, I realized that the heads weren't solid - they were just large leaves, somewhat tightly wrapped. The tightest one we took home and made more cole slaw. The others went into the compost. I think the lesson learned is to plant cabbage a bit earlier in the fall - the problem is that my garden isn't big enough - I have to wait until the summer/fall plants are done before I can plant the winter garden. The obvious solution - I need another garden!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Loris and I have just about finished our beets for the spring. I didn't plant enough, and I didn't take care of them well, so I'm impressed we had as many as we did. I planted a non-standard variety, in a variety of beautiful colors, which have a sort of target, spiral pattern when you slice them.

I haven't learned much about growing beets yet, although I just planted my second batch. For the first batch, I tried to plant two small rows close to each other. I failed to weed or to thin, which was a big mistake. Surprisingly, as I said, they turned out ok, although we didn't get very many. Apparently, each beet "seed" is more like a fruit that contains several seeds, so after they germinate, you're supposed to take some scissors and thin them out (rather than pulling them, because their roots will be all tangled together). I've never done this, but I've just planted a small bed of beets and I'll probably give it a try. Considering we're already having 100 degree weather, I'm not sure the beets will survive long enough to see if it works.

For this planting, I prepared a bed that is probably only 18 inches by 18 inches, and scattered the seed evenly. I'll thin it and let it grow in, without bothering to try to form rows. It's a sort of experiment.

We had roasted beets for dinner tonight, and yesterday night as well. Last night, we made two types of bruschetta; one had beets and gorgonzola cheese, and the other had leeks sauteed in butter with stracchino cheese. Both were delicious.

Tonight, we made a small appetizer salad with roasted beets, sliced onion, and gorgonzola. The flavors and textures were perfect together. This was a variation of another salad we typically do in the summer with sweet heirloom tomatoes, onions, and gorgonzola.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A fantastic dinner

Loris and I made ourselves a wonderful dinner last night. Homemade tajarin (sp?) with ragu, peas from the garden, and red wine from Lava Cap.

First, the pasta. I made enough pasta for a large family, I think, because we had so much meat to make a sauce with, and Loris figured we could freeze some for lunches at work. Not a bad idea. This is pasta made with 8 eggs.

Loris made the sauce. The meat is local, organic, grass-fed ground beef from Bledsoe Pork at the Davis Farmer's Market. We've had lamb and pork from them before, and the meat is always excellent. In this case, he gave me the ground beef for free because I was inquiring about purchasing a share of a whole cow for the ever-finicky group of people for whom I've been investigating creating a sort of grass-fed meat buying club. But I digress. The base of the sauce is my home-grown, home-made, home-canned tomato sauce. This stuff is delicious, and I can't wait to produce more of it, even though we still have plenty left from last year.

Loris also made a vegetable dish, although I have to take credit for my beautiful peas from the garden.

He cooked these up with onions and potatoes, and it was delicious. I can't help thinking almost constantly that we are spoiled beyond belief.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Growing lettuce in the Sacramento valley is a bit different than growing it in other places. This is because lettuce does not like heat. The average American salad consists of lettuce and tomatoes - but surprise! these vegetables do not happily co-exist in our desert/Mediterranean climate (or perhaps anywhere), so once my salads go from spring to summer, they stop containing lettuce and start containing tomatoes. Rule of thumb - tomatoes like it hot; lettuce doesn't.

Lettuce is easy to grow, even from seed. Either buy little seedlings, start seeds in small pots or seedling containers, or direct sow in the garden. I usually do just those first two - I haven't had luck direct-seeding in the garden. If you plant a leafy variety, you can keep harvesting the outer leaves and let the inner ones replace them. At some point, if you have a lot of lettuce, you'll have more than you can eat, and if the weather warms up, or you can't harvest them in a timely manner, you get what my husband calls "lettuce trees". The taste of these trees isn't as nice, and the texture is a bit tougher, but I eat them anyway.

This year, I've grown both red and green lettuce from seedlings, and I have some green lettuce seeds starting right now, even though it's already getting warm. I specifically chose a heat-resistant variety, but I don't know if that will save them. That's a good idea in hot-summer climates, though - choose your varieties to try to withstand the heat. Lettuce does grow fairly quickly, too, so even if you think it might be too close to summer to plant it, you never really know!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Some notes on garlic (and shallots)

This is my second year growing garlic. Last year I planted them in one long row, this year I did a small block of 32 bulbs - 4 rows of 8. So far, I think I like the block idea better, but I can't really say why.

Garlic is easy to grow, in general. Get a bulb from a farmer's market or buy organic from a grocery store, divide the bulb into cloves, and plant them, pointy side up, about 4-6 inches deep. (Don't buy conventional garlic - it may be treated with chemicals that prevent it from sprouting.) Last year I spaced the cloves about 8 inches apart, this year more like 6, and next year I might even drop it to 4. I can't imagine a bulb being much bigger than 4 inches, but I don't know. The larger the clove, the bigger the bulb you get next year. Think about that when you plant - plant the larger cloves and use the smaller ones for cooking to ensure you get nice big bulbs next year.

This year, I apparently accidentally planted a bunch of cloves that were in the process of splitting, so they put up two sets of leaves. I'm not sure what will happen when I pull them up, but I'll write about it.

Plant them right around Thanksgiving, at least if you live in a climate similar to mine in the Sacramento valley. Water them until spring, when the leaves start to turn brown. Stop watering them at that point, and let them dry and fall over. Then you can dig them up, very carefully so you don't damage them, and cure them for storage. To cure them, hang them or store them in a dark, cool, ventilated place for several weeks (see these sites for more info) before storing them. You can start eating them at any time, though.

If you like, you can try to braid them - I might give it a shot this year.

Shallots are grown in the same way - I planted them in the fall for the first time, and I'm excited to see what happens when they are ready this year!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fava beans

OK, so I didn't grow fava beans in my garden this year, and in fact I've never grown them. I considered it this year, but I couldn't find seeds, and I didn't really have a lot of space. Maybe I'll try it next year.

Nonetheless, I like fava beans. They're absolutely delicious, meaty and buttery and just oh so good. The real problem with fava beans is that they are a pain in the @$$ to prepare. You have to shell the beans from the pods, and then peel them. That's right, it's actually a two-step process. I finally learned a good way of doing it last year, only to forget exactly how it worked this year. So after my experience last night, I'm going to chronicle it for future generations (or at least future versions of myself).

I seemed to remember that last year I steamed the entire pod, rather than shelling the beans first, like all my resources said to do. I did manage to find one website that referred to someone steaming the pods for 5 minutes before shelling, but it was downplayed as a stupid thing to do. But I did it anyway. I thought I had done it for longer than 5 minutes last year, but who was I to argue. After 5 minutes, I pulled out a pod, split it open, and cut the tip of the bean, splitting the skin and popping it out. Seemed ok.

Actually, in retrospect, I think that 5 minutes isn't long enough. The problem is that if you overcook the beans, they get mushy, and they're really hard to peel. If you undercook the beans, the skins don't really separate, and they're really hard to peel. If you steam them just the right amount, then after you pop the beans out of the pods, you can use your fingernail to peel back a bit of the skin and squeeze them gently, and they pop right out. It probably helps to move the beans around a bit while they're steaming, so they steam more evenly. But I think I learned my lesson: Don't ever buy fresh fava beans again. Just kidding! Seriously, though, I think steaming them for closer to 10 minutes is the way to go.

Anyway, I wish I had taken a picture of the dinner I made last night, but I didn't. I made a fava bean risotto that was honestly quite good, but maybe not worth all the bean frustrations. But here's the recipe, anyway.

Fava Bean Risotto

1 onion, chopped finely
3 cups arborio rice
Olive oil
Some wine
Vegetable broth (about 7-8 cups)
Fresh fava beans, shelled and peeled using the above method
Chopped basil
Some butter and/or cream

Bring the broth to a boil, then let simmer on the stove. If the fava beans aren't quite cooked from their steaming, go ahead and boil them a few minutes in the broth, then remove and reserve for later.

Saute the onion in the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat, for about 5 or 10 minutes, depending on how much you want to caramelize them ( to taste). Add the rice, and stir to coat with oil (add more oil if necessary). Saute for a few minutes. Then add the wine - about 1/2 cup to 1 cup. Stir while the rice absorbs the wine. Start adding broth one ladle-full at a time, stirring gently while the wine absorbs the liquid. Continue until the rice is almost cooked, about 25-35 minutes. Start to taste for doneness. Stir in the fava beans, basil, butter, and cream. Taste for doneness, and add salt if necessary.

Serve hot, and pass the parmesan at the table.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


I picked the first peas of the season yesterday. How exciting is that!

I planted the peas right before i left for Italy in February, I think - the first week in February. I wish I had recorded it somewhere. I first soaked them in water overnight. I read a lot of conflicting information about whether to do this at all, and if you do it, how long to do it. I decided to do it, but to be conservative about it, so I only soaked them for 24 hours or so. I planted two short rows in one bed, parallel to each other, and one row between my last, struggling broccoli plants.

They did really well, germinated and grew nicely. They are a bush variety, not a vine, so I didn't plan to provide support, but they started trying to attach themselves to my other plants (and weeds), so I put a tomato cage on its side between the parallel rows, and used a little vine trellis for the single row, and a bit of twine to tie up the plants that were falling over.

Yesterday I picked enough pods to get a couple handfuls of peas. I shelled them, and Loris cooked up a delicious pasta sauce. The recipe is a bit vague - I think he said something about throwing a bit of anything into it. My best guess is that it is garlic, carrots, and peas sauteed in olive oil with bay leaves. I know he also added a lot of sweet wine, and parmesan cheese and a bit of heavy cream at the end. We ate it with rigatoni. Suffice it to say that it was delicious.

Update: Loris adds that there was also black pepper.