kids’ artist trading cards


The project I had really been looking forward to doing with my kids in February was The Great Backyard Bird Count. I was talking it up for weeks in advance, we had all our bird checklists printed out, binoculars at the ready…and then…when the weekend arrived, so did the rain. And not just a little rain, non-stop downpours for all four days. So unfortunately no birding for us.

Luckily, I had a great indoor project also lined up thanks to two resourceful moms in the blogosphere, Erin and Blair who organized a Kids’ Artist Trading Card Swap based on the same guidelines as the “grown-up” ATCs. Over 900 children from all over the world participated (amazing for such a low-key, homegrown effort.)

Since my kids had a lot of pent up energy from all the rainy days, I knew a careful session of watercolors or pastels was out of the question. So I decided to train their creative energy into something with a good physical component–hammering! They picked out leaves from our garden (carrot tops were the favorite), taped them to the pre-cut cards (Bristol board), covered that with a sheet of parchment paper and hammered away. The first few were messy green blobs, but eventually they each figured out the knack of how much and how hard to hammer to get a result they were happy with.

After they finished making their cards (five each), they had fun addressing the envelopes and using their globe to find all the places they were sending them. Then we had an exciting trip to the post office where they picked out their own stamps and had a lengthy Q&A session with the postal worker about how long it would take for their cards to arrive and how they would be transported.

Now the return cards are starting to arrive in the mail, which they are absolutely thrilled about and displaying proudly. My friend Jacqueline also gave me a great suggestion to use Google Earth to show them the locations of the other kids in their swap groups. Seeing the difference of residences from an apartment building in Manhattan to a rural home in North Carolina and then flying around the world to England and then Australia, was very dramatic for them.

I am so glad to be part of a network of mothers around the world who connected our kids in this way. And huge thanks again to Erin and Blair for organizing!

goat butchery 101


Last night I went to a goat butchery workshop at Café Rouge in Berkeley. Butchery? Goat? Huh, what? Slaughtering an animal is something I have a hard time thinking about, much less doing myself (after catching and eating a trout on a camping trip one time, I found myself unexpectedly morose and in tears.) Yet I realize what a huge hypocrisy this is since I am not a vegetarian. So in an effort to be a more responsible omnivore (and also just because of my far-reaching interests in food and agriculture) I’ve been trying to become more informed about animal husbandry, meat production etc. Hence the workshop.

The evening started with an overview of goat breeds, raising and breeding, and humane animal protocol by Jeanne McCormack and Al Medvitz of Montezuma Hills Lamb and Goat who sell their meat to Café Rouge. Next the Café Rouge butchers, Scott Brennan (pictured above) and Ben Broadus demonstrated the art of
butchery. Except for some of the sawing, it wasn’t any more gruesome than my experience deboning the capon at Christmas.

After the carcass was butchered, Scott and Ben (along with several volunteers) prepared a variety of goat meat dishes for us all to sample. The first dish was a goat tartare which was shockingly delicious. I was prepared for a strong, gamey taste but was surprised by how light and sweet it was. Jeanne and Al explained that this was the result of the breeding, raising and age of the goat. Next were Kefta (Middle Eastern meatballs), again incredibly flavorful.

One of the unique goat products that Café Rouge’s meat market sells is a dry goat salami invented by Scott Brennan that he calls “Goat-eroni.” He demonstrated the making of these and also talked about the curing process. (Which is something I’ve been avidly studying so I was happy to hear more tips!)

Finally we were all treated to grilled goat chops and stuffed goat roast (made from the shoulder cut). The chops were the highlight of the night for me. If I had been served these without knowing what I was eating I would have been puzzled. They looked like lamb chops but the taste was far more subtle and well-rounded. I have always enjoyed eating birria but this was goat taken to another level. I have to say I’ll be back to the Café Rouge meat market soon to pick up some goat meat for cooking at home.

Until then, here are some recipes from the evening, all courtesy of Café Rouge’s Executive chef and owner Marsha McBride and Chef Rick DeBeaord.

Goat Tartare

1 lb lean goat meat (leg or loin)
1 Tbsp finely chopped scallions
1 Tbsp finely chopped mint
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
1 Tbsp capers
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 cup small dice of celery
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
zest and juice of one orange
salt to taste

Finely mince goat meat by hand with a sharp knife. Mix with all ingredients. Let sit for 15 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning. Serve within two hours of making.

Kefta

1 lb goat-belly and shoulder
1 lb beef
1 1/2 Tbsp toasted coriander
1 1/2 Tbsp toasted cumin
1 tsp paprika
1/2 cup chopped chard or kale
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp esplette pepper
1 Tbsp salt

Season meat with all spices and marinate overnight. Grind through a 3/16 inch die. (They also sell ground goat at the Cafe Rouge meat market.) Add chopped greens and form into 3 ounce balls or around a bamboo skewer (they used rosemary springs last night). Grill or saute.

Grilled Goat Chops

6 4-oz loin or rack goat chops
2 cups fresh orange juice and zest
2 cups honey
2 cups dry sherry
1 bunch of Italian parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh oregano, chopped
sel vert
2 cups goat milk

Place orange juice and honey in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil and cook until the liquid caramelizes slightly. Add sherry and continue cooking until it forms a light syrup. Cool. Add herbs and goat milk. Preseason chops with salt and pepper or sel vert. Grill over charcoal or wood, brushing with marinade.

road trip: LA

I just got back from a weekend in Los Angeles, visiting my good friend Harriet. Even though airfares are shockingly low at the moment I decided to drive. There's nothing that clears my head more than hitting the open road alone–moving forward through changing terrain, uninterrupted in my own little world for hours and hours on end. (Check out photos from some of my other roadtrips on Flickr.) 

Once in LA, the theme of the weekend turned out to be Downtown/Little Tokyo and good inexpensive food. My first night in town we went for ramen at the legendary Daikokuya. This is one of those hole in the wall eateries where people line up for hours to get in. Normally I refuse to participate in that kind of lemming behavior, but I was fighting a cold and really wanted what I'd heard was the best bowl of ramen in town.

Even though we didn't get a table until close to 10PM, I have to admit it was worth the wait. For starters, the broth is not the usual clear fare, it's a dense buttery (and by butter, I mean pork butter) stock made from boiling pork bones and soy sauce all day long. And the pork itself is not just any pork, it's kurobuta (Berkshire) pork. Even the hard boiled eggs are pre-boiled in a secret sauce (the waiters were very cagey when I asked them about it) that impart an incredible flavor. The overall result was the most satisfying ramen I have ever eaten, all for a whopping $8.50. (I'd love to hear about any place that thinks it can top it!)

The next night we tried a much newer spot, the hip "exotic sausage grill" Wurstküche. I liked the simple raw industrial space and long communal tables but was even more impressed to find 24 imported beers on tap (I was very happy with my Belgian Tripel Karmeliet). The next choice was deciding from 21 varieties of sausage. As curious as I was about a lot of the inventive offerings (such as Rattlesnake & Rabbit or Duck, Bacon & Jalapeno) I went for a classic Bockwurst with two toppings (in my case caramelized onions and sauerkraut). My favorite part of the meal though were the crisp double-dipped Belgian fries which came with a choice of imaginative dipping sauces (I was intrigued by the Coconut Curry Mayo but ultimately couldn't pass up the Blue Cheese Walnut and Bacon). Not the finest or fanciest meal, but definitely a good concept, well-executed and fun.

The last notable meal of the weekend (not counting the numerous snack stops at Pinkberry) was breakfast at Square One. They have a great breakfast menu and do a flawless job of preparing the food, but my dining experience was overshadowed by being sandwiched between two tables engrossed in "industry" talk. I guess it wouldn't be a trip to LA if at some point you didn't feel like you were in a scene out of a Hollywood satire. At the table to my left was the idealistic young film student (fresh out of college and new in town) looking for advice from a seasoned screenwriter about how to break in as a writer-director. To my right were two cynical TV sitcom writers whose entire worldview seemed not to extend beyond the backlot. I had a hard time having my own conversation because the eavesdropping was endlessly entertaining.

potato love

What says "I love you" better than a potato? It's been a potato-themed week around here. First a potato-stamp Valentine's Day card project with the kids and then planting five varieties of potatoes in the yard. Not the russets shown above (those were for art, not eating) but German Butterball, Banana Fingerling, Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn and Colorado Rose. I clearly prefer the yellow, buttery type of potato but I threw one red skin in for variety (how risque!) I get all my seed potatoes from Ronnigers who have a great variety (organic and conventional).

Now I just hope our belated (but welcome) rains are not going to cause too much water build-up in the soil and rot them all. It was actually pouring while I was planting yesterday but I stuck it out (it actually was pretty enjoyable–peaceful + good smells) because I wanted to get the potatoes in at the start of the waning moon and didn't want to wait until next month.

I've always gardened organically but have never followed any kind of lunar or astronomical planting calendar before. I guess some part of me always tuned out this kind of wisdom because it seemed to have a slight aura of quackery about it. But given that the moon's gravitational pull controls the tides (not to mention my moods!) it really doesn't seem so far-fetched that it would also affect germination, soil moisture etc. And of course there is the long, long history of traditional cultures (from the Egyptians to the Mayans) following this logic.

In sorting through the various theories about using moon phases and astrology for gardening, one of the basic concepts I learned was that annual plants that grow above the ground should be planted in the first or second quarter moon near to the full moon, and root crops  should be planted shortly after the full moon. Since the full moon was just a few days ago, I wanted to try this theory out.

Of course I have no control standard to test against and therefore no way of measuring whether this will be any more successful than planting at another time but I always like to learn new things and try  new approaches. It's about the process, not the outcome!

curry me(e) up!

Now that we are finally getting some consistently cold and rainy days here I've started craving big steaming bowls of soup, preferably spicy. About a month ago (when it was still unseasonably warm in northern California) the NY Times ran an article about Southeast Asian soups that caught my eye. Now that winter is actually upon us I am all geared up to start busting out some of these recipes. Today I made their version of Coconut Curry Chicken Noodle Soup (Curry Mee) which really hit the spot–hearty, silky (from the coconut milk), crunchy and spicy. Great taste. Great mouthfeel. Very warming and nourishing.

If you're looking for more recipes in this vein, Leemei Tan of mycookinghut.com also has an amazing Curry Mee (aka Curry Laksa) recipe on Rasa Malaysia–both great Southeast Asian food blogs.

Soups like these almost make dreary grey days enjoyable!

a day in the life of chard

And so the unsuspecting chard plant started the day, happily growing in the garden…

not knowing she was destined for my kitchen table to fulfill her destiny as dinner.


One of the (many) great things about growing your own food is that when you return home tired at the end of the day and have no idea what to cook for dinner, all your have to do is look out your window for inspiration. The chard was so exuberant today I couldn't resist.

After a quick trip to the yard, I rooted through the pantry and found some Israeli couscous, an onion and some sun-dried tomatoes. That plus some homemade chicken stock and I had dinner ready in about fifteen minutes. That's almost faster than a drive-thru. Gotta love that.

stealth cauliflower

My kids are pretty used to eating a wide variety of tastes and flavors but there are a few things, like cauliflower, that I have a hard time getting them to enjoy. Since we do our best to try and eat local produce as much as possible (and when we can’t, we stick with the seasonal vegetables that would be growing in our area at the time) that means that even here in sunny California there isn’t a lot of variety in winter. Potatoes, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts…you know…

So tonight I tried my hand with a new form of cauliflower subterfuge. I made a gratin with béchamel , served it over elbow macaroni and passed it off as Mac & Cheese. The kids gobbled it right up! I can understand why as I had two heaping portions myself.

Gratinéed
Cauliflower with Béchamel Sauce

(adapted from Marcella Hazan’s, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
)

for 6 servings:

1 medium head cauliflower, about 2 pounds
Salt
Béchamel Sauce (see below)
3/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano‑reggiano cheese
Whole nutmeg
An oven‑to‑table baking dish
Butter
for smearing and dotting the baking dish

1. Boil and drain the cauliflower: Detach and discard most of
the leaves, except for the small, tender inner ones. Cut a deep cross into the root end. Bring 4 to 5 quarts of water to a rapid boil. The more water you use the sweeter the cauliflower will taste and the faster it will cook. Put in the cauliflower and when the water returns to a boil, adjust heat to cook at a moderate boil. Cook, uncovered for 10 minutes. Drain immediately when done. Separate the florets and cut them into bite‑size slices about ½ inch thick. Put them in a bowl and toss them with a little salt.

2. Preheat oven to 400′.

3. Make the béchamel sauce (see below). When it reaches a
medium density, remove it from heat and mix in all but 3 tablespoons of the grated Parmesan and a tiny grating of nutmeg‑‑about 1/8 teaspoon.

4. Add the béchamel to the bowl with the cauliflower and fold
it in gently, coating the florets well.

5. Smear the bottom of a baking dish with butter. Put in the
cauliflower and all the béchamel in the bowl. The dish should be able to contain the cauliflower pieces in a layer not more than 1 ½ inches deep.
Sprinkle the top with the remaining 3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan and dot lightly with butter. Bake on the uppermost rack of the preheated oven until a light crust forms on top, about 15 to 20 minutes. After taking it out of the oven, let the cauliflower settle for a few minutes before serving.

Béchamel Sauce

A smooth, luxuriantly creamy béchamel is one of the most
useful preparations in the repertory of an Italian cook and it is easy to master, if you heed three basic rules. First, never allow the flour to become colored when you cook it with the butter, or it will acquire a burnt, pasty taste. Second, add the milk to the flour and butter mixture gradually and off heat to keep lumps from forming. Third, never stop stirring until the sauce is formed.

About 1 2/3 cups medium‑thick béchamel

2 cups milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
3 tablespoons all‑purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Put the milk in a saucepan, turn on the heat to medium low,
and bring the milk just to the verge of boiling, to the point when it begins to form a ring of small, pearly bubbles.

2. While heating the milk, put the butter in a heavy‑bottomed,
4‑ to 6‑cup saucepan, and turn on the heat to low. When the butter has melted completely, add all the flour, stirring it in with a wooden spoon. Cook, while stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes. Do not allow the flour to become colored. Remove from heat.

3. Add the hot milk to the flour‑and‑butter mixture, no more than 2 tablespoons of it at a time. Stir steadily and thoroughly. As soon as the first 2 tablespoons of milk have been incorporated into the mixture, add 2 more, and continue to stir. Repeat this procedure until you have added 1/2 cup milk; you can now put in the rest of the milk 1/2 cup at a time, stirring steadfastly, until all the milk has been smoothly amalgamated with the flour and butter.

4. Place the pan over low heat, add the salt, and cook, stirring without interruption, until the sauce is as dense as thick cream. To make it even thicker, should a recipe require it, cook and stir a little longer. For a thinner sauce, cook it a little less. If you find any lumps forming, dissolve them by beating the sauce rapidly with a whisk.

wheat tassels!

I've been so used to seeing my unchanging green field of winter wheat for the last few months (see my past posts about it here, here, here and here) that I almost didn't notice today that it's flowering! So exciting! Of course with the incredibly weird "winter" weather we're having (today was yet another sunny 70 degree day) I have no idea if this is happening prematurely or if it will pose a problem once the cold and rains arrive. With typical backyard crops there are always lots of local gardeners to talk with about these issues, but I'm really in the dark with this one. I kind of like not knowing what I'm doing or what to expect though. It really makes the whole thing so much more of an experiment.