Monday, December 31, 2007

Year-End Giving: The Heifer Project

I first learned about The Heifer Project from the wonderful "Dr. America" -- Professor Jim Farrell of St. Olaf College, who featured it in one of his radio essays on WCAL. Since then, I've loved the idea of working to end hunger by donating the cost (or part of the cost) of an animal (in particular, one that can give milk or lay eggs) that can be a sustainable source of food and income to an impoverished family and community. Animal well-being guidelines help ensure that a donated animal is suited to the environment and that recipients care for it appropriately, and the recipients promise to share the offspring of the original animal with others in need. It's truly a gift that keeps on giving. And it's a charming opportunity to sit down with children, talk to them about hunger and poverty, and together choose a donation they can really relate to: a heifer, a goat, a sheep, a llama, a water buffalo, a flock of chicks, ducks or geese, or even honeybees -- a choice that will strike a chord with any young person who has seen "Bee Movie."

Check it out; that's all I'm going to say.

Happy new year, dear readers.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

First Seed Catalog of the Season

The first seed catalog of the season hit my mailbox on Saturday. Many years this has been the Totally Tomatoes catalog, but this year Jung Quality Seeds made it first. Having just looked at both websites, I noticed that they're both based in Randolph, Wisconsin, and are in fact part of the same company. So much for the race to be first; either way, they win.

This past summer I gardened in containers on my back patio; I currently live in a rented duplex and it isn't really practical to dig an in-ground garden. I was considering trying to get a plot in a community garden for the coming year, but it would probably be more sensible be to take advantage of an open invitation to continue gardening at what is now my ex-husband's house, where I lived and gardened between 2001 and 2006. It's got a 30-foot-long partially raised bed built into the slope of the back boundary of the property, gets quite good sun, and I'm familiar with the soil there. There are some perennials in the bed -- bee balm, phlox, joe pye weed, spiderwort, ornamental grasses, and daylilies -- but they are mainly toward the back of the bed and I just work around them in planting the lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash that have usually made up the main part of my gardening efforts. Not having dug or planted the bed for the past two summers, I'm sure it will be a big job to clear out the weeds and spreading grasses.

If I have some real space to work with again this year, I will allow myself to play the gardener's favorite winter game: imagining the ideal garden, making lists of varieties, deciding between the tried and true favorites and beguiling newcomers. Over the years my favorite catalog has been Johnny's Selected Seeds, which comes from Maine and always offers a wealth of planting and care information with a nice selection of heirloom and organic seeds. All these catalogs are available online, but there is a much greater delight in sitting down with one or more printed catalogs and a pad of paper and a pen or sharp pencil and making list after list. It's a pleasant way to while away the weeks before it's time to get seeds started indoors.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Little Too Much Excitement (All's Well That Ends Well)

We spent several hours on Christmas Eve wondering if we should be taking Younger Daughter (age 15) to the ER after she ate half a chocolate cookie that turned out to have ground hazelnuts in it. She is allergic to tree nuts, though she's never had a life-threatening reaction. We were at her grandmother's house in Burnsville prior to our traditional family Christmas Eve dinner at Tucci Benucch at the MOA. The cookies were homemade and unlabeled -- part of a holiday gift my sister-in-law had received; I inspected and sniffed and couldn't detect any hint of nuts, so I told my daughter I thought they were okay for her.

Within seconds her tongue and throat were itching, then a few minutes later her throat felt thick and her mucus-production facilities were going into full drive. She kept saying, "This is bad, this is bad," but also kept assuring us she could breathe with no problems. We found some fast-acting allergy medicine in a kitchen cupboard and had her take it -- and then discovered it was 10 years past its expiration date. Oops. She was clearly uncomfortable but continued to say she was essentially okay and could breathe just fine. After some while it seemed that if anything really bad was going to happen it would already have done so, so we decided to keep our dinner reservation in Bloomington, while continuing to watch her closely.

Soon after we had ordered, her asthma started to kick in and she began to wheeze -- not in an escalating way, but causing her considerable discomfort. Her inhaler, however, was in Northfield. We kept asking her if she wanted to get to an emergency room to get on a nebulizer, but she kept saying no, she just needed her inhaler. We raced through dinner (it was delicious, as always) and then the seven of us piled back into the minivan and zoomed down to Northfield, checking with her every few minutes to see if we should divert to a hospital. No, she kept saying, "I'm okay" -- albeit clearly continuing to feel very uncomfortable. I got increasingly nervous, wondering if we were doing the right thing, as the lights of the south metro faded away behind us and I knew that we were getting farther away from help before we would get closer to it again. But she wasn't getting worse, she kept assuring us. We got to the house, raced in, got her inhaler, and within five minutes she was restored to comfort and didn't need to use it again. Enormous relief all around.

Lessons learned: Always have inhaler when going out of town. Try to have some chewable Benadryl, not 10 years past its expiration date, on hand if trying unfamiliar, unlabeled baked goods. Better yet, don't try unfamiliar, unlabeled baked goods!

I've always been conservative about seeking medical treatment. The watch-and-wait approach comes naturally to me, and we've made few ER visits over the course of 18 years of parenthood and three children. Did we gamble too much? Should I have called 911 as soon as she said her throat felt thick? As it turned out, all was well, but what if it hadn't been? Might the see-how-she's feeling-in-another-minute-or-two approach have been fatal if this had been a life-threatening episode? If there's another such episode, it might be no worse -- or it could be the one that becomes life-threatening. Should we now get her an epi-pen and expect her to carry it always in case of accidental nut exposure? It's hard to know.

But I'm grateful for this happy ending and glad to have been reminded not to minimize the potential risks involved in allergic reactions.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cranberry-Hazelnut Biscotti

I hadn't done any holiday baking yet this year, but I wanted to make something to share with my colleagues, so last night after I got home I pulled out cookbooks and searched online for something a little festive and special but not an all-out sugar splurge. I've never made biscotti before, but was drawn to a straight-forward-sounding but appealing recipe for cranberry-nut biscotti I found on the Good Housekeeping site.

I ran out to Just Food for a bag of organic dried cranberries and some hazelnuts, which they store in jars in a refrigerated case for optimum freshness. (The oils in nuts go bitter and rancid after a while when stored at room temperature, which accounts for the unpleasant taste you can get when you use nuts that have been in your pantry for several months; I learned my lesson on that score and now keep walnuts well-wrapped in the freezer, where they stay completely fresh and ready to use when I want them.)

Toasting hazelnuts, as required by this recipe, was a new process for me: you bake them in a jellyroll pan for a while, then pour them into a towel and rub them (and rub them and rub them) until most of the skins come off. The flavor of these toasted hazelnuts, long one of my favorite nuts, was amazing; I could have abandoned the project right there, happy with these delicious nuts, barely waiting until they were cool enough not to burn the tongue.

The biscotti dough is a very stiff one, with no shortening to soften it: just flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, vanilla, and a tiny bit of water. After a little initial stirring, it's necessary to get in there with your hands and knead the dough to mix it. When the dough is well mixed, then you knead in the dried cranberries and coarsely chopped nuts until they are well distributed throughout the dough. It was quite a physical process!

You form the dough into several long logs and bake them, then slice them up and bake the slices some more. After they were cool I spread melted semi-sweet Ghirardelli chocolate on about half of them. They were deemed delicious at the office this morning, and I will definitely make them again.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Farmers' Market Squash

Today it was finally time to cook the beautiful squash that has been adorning my countertop since I bought it at the farmers' market back in October. The grower described it as a French heirloom squash, but it also looks very much like one described as a Ukranian winter squash on this All About Winter Squash page. This was actually one of the smaller squashes of its type that was being sold at that stand that day, but I've included the yogurt cup next to it to help convey its considerable size.

It sliced open quite easily. I cut it into quarters, more or less. The web page I linked to above shows methods of cutting squash that include tapping a large knife with a rubber mallet, as well as use of a saw. My not-recently-sharpened chef's knife did the trick with no great effort required.

I oiled a baking sheet and arranged the quarters with one cut side down and baked them for about three quarters of an hour at 350 degrees. Last time I cooked squash I put large chunks into a covered glass dish with a little water and cooked it in the microwave for about 10 minutes. That worked nicely and was certainly very quick, but this time I thought I'd pursue the richer flavor and wonderful smell that come from oven-baking a squash. Here's how the pieces looked when they were done. They smelled heavenly.

And how did I use my squash? Well, two of the four quarters went right into my freezer for later use. I scraped the pulp off the skin of the other two pieces and cooked it with lots of diced carrots, onion, garlic, fresh ginger and water in a large saucepan until the carrots were tender, then blended it all up and added a little cinnamon, salt, pepper, and half-and-half. Yes, it's the same squash-carrot-ginger soup I made several weeks ago, since it became an instant favorite, but this time I made at least twice as much. I should have enough for several lunches this week, and another day I'll pull the rest of the cooked squash out of the freezer and use it for something else. That's a lot of eating for one squash.

Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Kitchen Composting in Berkeley

I knew from my last couple of visits to my brother in Berkeley, CA, that they have garden waste carts, like our wheeled garbage carts, that are picked up weekly for composting. Since September 2007, residents have been able to add to those carts their kitchen waste, including fruit and vegetable scraps, meat and bones, food-soiled paper, and waxed cardboard. I'd been thinking what a huge waste pizza boxes represent, since they can't be recycled with other paper and cardboard unless they are completely clean, which would be unusual. It didn't occur to me that they can be composted, but that seems an elegant solution. I was surprised to see that meat and bones can be included, since those are usually discouraged from inclusion in home compost piles to minimize odors and pest attraction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home Again

This was the view as my plane took off from Oakland, CA, this morning -- the two spans of the San Francisco Bay Bridge meeting at Yerba Buena Island in the foreground, the northern half of San Francisco on the left, and southern Marin County on the right, with the Golden Gate Bridge, linking the two, barely visible in this smaller view but clearer if you click and see the large version.

Yesterday I had lunch with eight or so former high school classmates in the charming but touristy little waterfront hamlet of Sausalito, visible if you follow the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin and look for the first built-up area along the coast to the right. It was idyllic -- a beautiful clear day in the 50s, yachts bobbing at anchor in the harbor, a couple of glasses of a pleasant Pinot Grigio warming the senses, a crab and avocado sandwich on the plate, lots of reminiscences and catching up and laughter and exclamations. But it didn't feel like home, although I spent my formative years out there. Home was the feeling I had as I flew across the darkening midwestern landscape in late afternoon, seeing a pinpoint of light surrounded by a little bracket of a windbreak repeated on farm after farm across southern Minnesota. Home was the feeling I had as Dave drove me down Cedar into Northfield, turning left off Hwy 3 onto Third St., crossing the bridge, and coming into Bridge Square all twinkly with holiday lights. Home was hugging my children for the first time in a week. I'm glad to be back.

Friday, December 7, 2007

All Seasons at Once

In my last post I commented that it seems to be autumn here in the Bay Area, judging from the foliage on some of the trees and shrubs. I'd forgotten what an all-season place this is -- because it's also spring and summer and winter as well. As I walked a few blocks to my mother's little house yesterday morning, I passed blooming roses, fuschias, bougainvillea and a purple-flowered vine. I mentioned this contrast to my mother, and she said that some people's bulbs are well up now, and will be blooming in January. The local garden center is selling pansies and cyclamen outdoors, but there is a large inflated Santa adorning the middle of the display area. This climate supports such a range of plants -- those that have tropical habits and seem to know no season, and those that change colors and drop their leaves; some that love moisture and thrive in fogs and coastal rains, and some that do well when there is little precipitation for months on end.

I grew up here, and can remember being defensive when visitors commented on the supposed lack of seasons ("We have seasons, they're just, well, subtle," I used to say), but I have come to love the marked seasons of the other parts of the country I've lived in for the past 30 years. Hot, humid summers have actually been the hardest for me to adapt to after the moderate temperatures of San Francisco, where it is usually between 50 and 75 and humidity is reserved for cool weather. And I'd be fine with it if winter only lasted 10 weeks or so, which has sometimes almost been the case in recent Minnesota years. But there's nothing to beat the joy of a May day when fragrant, old fashioned bridal wreath spirea and old lilacs grace so many Northfield gardens, or the soul-inspiring visual impact of peak color in autumn, or the silent shimmer of fresh snowfall.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Eating Locally Elsewhere

What was I thinking? I won't be cooking that beautiful heirloom squash this week, because I will be eating locally in the San Francisco Bay Area while visiting my mom and my brother and his lovely family for a few days. I flew via Portland yesterday, with airport TV monitors and newspaper headlines all emblazoned with images of the horrendous storm and flooding that hit the Pacific Northwest -- but all that was evident from the plane windows once we descended through the clouds and fog were a few puddles on the ground.

It is cool and drizzly in Berkeley today, and it is still botanical autumn here. The view out of my brother's kitchen window shows clusters of red berries against golden leaves, a bright red Japanese maple, and expanses of burgundy foliage interspersed with gray-green eucalyptus and redwoods and oaks and palm trees, set against the mist-enshrouded backdrop of the Berkeley Hills.

The fragrant dampness and rich colors provide a very welcome respite from the snows and below-zero windchills of the past few days in Minnesota. I do, however, welcome the knowledge that we will have a white Christmas this year, something that we used to take for granted (when we moved to Northfield almost 18 years ago, a longtime resident told us there was usually snow on the ground from Thanksgiving until at least March) but increasingly uncertain in recent years.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Local Eating This Week

It's been another atypical week, particularly busy at work and not cooking at home because I've been dog-sitting at my ex's house (formerly our shared house) while he is in New York for the week. I've lived mainly on toast (local bread) and peanut butter, and the remnants of some Chinese food and a large "gourmet vegetarian" pizza ordered early in the week. Tonight, as freezing rain fell to glaze the snow that arrived earlier today, I was at home and made a simple supper of local eggs and home-fries (eggs from Owatonna, MN, and potatoes from Kenyon, MN, both from within 30 miles of here). Next week I hope to finally do something with the beautiful peachy-pink French heirloom squash I bought from the farmers' market back in October.