rue the day!

A few weeks ago when I was reading about beneficial plants to grow for the chickens, one of the suggested herbs was rue (Ruta graveolens) as it has both medicinal and insecticidal properties (for poultry and for people.) Among other things a brew or a powder of the dried leaves is apparently a great way to treat lice.

A few days after reading this I happened to be at a small local nursery and was very surprised to see several small rue plants sitting amidst all the run-of-the-mill herbs. What synchronicity! Rue is hardly a kitchen staple in the US, so it seemed very fluky and fortuitous to find it.

Rue has a fascinating history going back to ancient Rome where it was used as a key ingredient in moretum, a spicy garlic and cheese paste. (Virgil even wrote a poem about it.) I first learned about rue when I lived in Italy where it's used to make some types of grappa (grappa con ruta), and later re-encountered it in Ethiopia where it is used extensively both to flavor coffee as well as in the ubiquitous Ethiopian spice mix, berbere.

After I brought home the four rue plants from the nursery (their entire stock) I was reading about companion planting and discovered that rue is also a good complement for raspberries. More synchronicity as I had five bare root raspberry plants I was just about to plant!

Since there seemed to be a lot of naturally occurring significance around these rue plants I decided to make their presence in my life even more meaningful by planting them on a day that would best befit their name. That is, on a day that I could truly "rue."

In general I try (not always successfully) not to regret things; even various "mistakes" in life always seem to provide opportunities for learning. I also like the Chinese fable about "good" luck and "bad" luck that illustrates how a loss can turn out to be a gain; it's all about perspective.

That said, even in my most sage (yet another herb with a dual meaning!) moments I still have things I can't quite accept in a harmonious way. Can you really find an upside to Hitler? Apartheid? Darfur? And the scores of other senseless tragedies that continue to occur?

On a more personal level I think we all have those (hopefully few) things in our lives we really do regret or lament. Either something of our own doing or something unfortunate that was done to us. The kind of thing that no matter how you look at it, no good seems to come from it.

So…getting back to my rue plants, my thought was that by planting these beneficial herbs on a day that had very negative repercussions in my life, I would be shifting perspective and creating a positive outcome. Conveniently I knew just such a day was coming up today (another synchronous occurrence) so I didn't have to wait long. I must say it felt great to "take back" the day by openly and flagrantly "rueing" it.

Now that I've done this I really appreciate that rue is also known as "the herb of grace." How fitting.

What if everyone started their own personal "rue gardens" to exorcise bad memories?

perfecting pizza

Almost every Friday I try to have "pizza and movie night" at home with my kids. So each week I keep working to improve my pizza-making technique. I almost dare not say it, but yesterday I think I finally reached perfection (or at least as close as I can get without a wood-burning oven.) Gasp!

After my great composting adventure in the morning, I had a few friends and their kids join us for an expanded version of our usual family pizza night. Since we had a small group I decided instead of just making my usual one large pizza I would make a variety of smaller pizzas–tomato and mozzarella, pesto and mozzarella, potato with prosciutto and fontina, and pear with gorgonzola.

Over the years I've experimented with various doughs but a few months ago I decided that Peter Reinhardt's was by far the best. (For details see my previous post on breakfast pizza.) Then last month I read an article in the LA Times about how to make a better pizza by transforming your home oven with firebricks. The idea of a crude DIY home project with a culinary slant made the idea irresistible!

A few weeks (+ $10 and a trip to the local building supply company) later, I had my firebricks in hand and was ready to try out the new cooking technique. Last night was the virgin run and did not disappoint. I used one full brick on each side of my trusty pizza stone and laid six split bricks on the rack above.

With this makeshift brick oven set at 550F I was able to crank out perfectly crispy thin crust pizzas every eight minutes. Definitely the best pizzas I've ever made at home. We gobbled up six of them before we knew it. Now my mind is spinning about all the future pizza possibilities!

compost adventure

I love a day that starts with borrowing an old pick-up truck from a friend and then filling it up with as much free compost as it can hold.

This morning my friend Amy and I were planning to take her truck to Berkeley for the city's monthly free compost giveaway. (Which Novella Carpenter wrote about on her blog last month.) But at the last minute there was a snafu with Amy's truck which meant we were either going to have to abandon our quest for free compost (noooooo!) or find an alternate solution.

Just when it was looking like all hope of compost was lost, a last minute chance encounter lead to another source for a truck (thank you Jim!) The day saved, we headed to Berkeley and started shoveling. It was so much fun to be part of this communal gardening experience. There were all types of people in all kinds of vehicles. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, enjoying the sunny day and the all-you-can-shovel compost buffet. Besides the free "black gold," the nice weather and the exercise (shoveling a truckload of compost is a decent workout) I really enjoyed the feeling of community–strangers coming together around a common interest, sharing shovels and helping each other.

While I was shoveling away I also found myself reflecting on the concept of re-use and renewal on a personal level. The compost giveaway happens to take place in an area that holds a lot of deeply bittersweet memories for me. Being there again after a long absence stirred up some painful feelings. But then I thought about the compost–rotted old plant material that transforms into such a nutritious resource–and how we humans with time (and perspective) can also transform difficult experiences (or feelings or memories) into something that makes us grow. Layering a new memory onto this location was a step in that direction for me today. Growing with my garden…

good dirt

It’s hard to sit down to work at the computer these days when the weather has been so beautiful, the soil so warm and the garden so beckoning. And as if I needed any more reasons to be outside, medical researchers in the UK have now found evidence that
some bacteria found in soil may produce serotonin and help ward off depression. (You can read more about it on Grist.) And all this time I thought my joy in gardening was just a poetic attachment to being close to nature!

As for my garden…even though my winter wheat is still not ready to harvest and hogging up my prime growing area (argh!), I’ve managed to sow a few crops in other pockets of the garden–more herbs, lettuces, peas, corn, pumpkins, melons. I also planted some bare root raspberries and started a “sunflower house” from seed for my kids.

The sunflower house is a great idea I first read about in Sharon Lovejoy’s sweet book about gardening projects for children called Sunflower Houses. It’s basically a structure made up of “walls” of sunflowers with Morning Glories trailing up the stalks and across the top to form a “roof.” I have wonderful childhood memories of sitting for hours inside a pea or bean arbor, privately picking and eating while daydreaming amidst the tangled foliage and filtered light. Those experiences created a lifetime love of outdoor sanctuaries and garden structures (bean tepees, tree forts etc.) which I now build for my children (and myself!) But the sunflower house is a new one for me. I’m really eager to see how it turns out.

In other gardening news, I recently discovered Veggie Trader which seems to be a cool new way to trade, buy or sell homegrown produce. I always do this informally with friends and neighbors but I think it would be fun to extend this in a larger local network (especially when I’m drowning in zucchini!) The Oooby Ning group is another site that’s interesting in a similar way. I really enjoy the mix of having a broad virtual community around an activity that is by definition so local and terrestrial.

spring meal in the garden

There really needs to be a word for an afternoon meal that's between lunch and dinner. I realize "lunner" doesn't quite have the same ring to it that "brunch" does, but there ought to be something more descriptive than "afternoon meal." I suppose "supper" somewhat gets at the idea, but not in a way that's uniformly understood.

Anyway, semantics aside, yesterday I had friends over for a lovely spring afternoon meal in the garden. They arrived at two o'clock and we ate and drank until the evening. Afternoon is actually my favorite time of day for entertaining because you have the morning to prepare and the evening to clean up and still get to enjoy a good part of the day with your guests. There's also something about the afternoon that feels like the most relaxed time of day. People usually aren't as tired, or rushing and tend to like to hang out longer. It also works well with kids (who can run around while the adults are socializing.)

When I was planning what to serve I knew I wanted the menu to revolve around spring, the herbs in my garden, and of course on the cheese I had made earlier in the week. I also wanted to have a collection of light vegetable-based "first plates" that could be eaten casually over time rather than a formal sit down meal. Here's what I came up with:

  • Ricotta crostini with fresh thyme (based on a recipe from the NY Times)
  • Pesto pizzette (with pesto made from last summer's garden and my fresh goat mozzarella)
  • Ricotta ravioli with sage butter
  • Roasted asparagus
  • Dandelion salad with anchovy dressing and herbed croutons
  • Meringues with zabaglione and strawberries in red wine

I think the best evidence of how the meal turned out is that I didn't manage to get one photo taken of any of the food! (Partly the result of it being gobbled up quickly and partly because I was too busy enjoying myself and my Campari and grapefruit soda!)

new girls in the flock

It’s been a busy few days around here. Yesterday we brought home the final two members of our flock–a Buff Orpington (now named “Thursday”) and an Ameraucana (our girl “Friday”). The baby chicks are always very cute but the Ameraucana’s markings really make me laugh. She has a wide brown stripe all the way down the center of her head and back, flanked on each side by a thin black stripe and then a thin white stripe. The overall effect, especially when seen from above, is that she looks very much like a chipmunk! I’m not sure I can think of anything much cuter than a chick crossed with a chipmunk.

limoncello intermission

During the cheesemaking process there’s a lot of waiting-around time–when the milk is getting up to the right temperature, when the curds are forming, when the curds are draining etc. So during yesterday’s cheesemaking downtime, Amy and I kept busy by making limoncello from lemons from her mother’s tree.

I haven’t made limoncello in a very, very long time, and when I last did it was from a very simple recipe I had read in Fine Cooking. But Amy had recently stumbled on a random website called Limoncello Quest (clearly made by someone who is limoncello-obsessed!) and wanted to try out their recipe. The technique seemed very well researched and quite promising. I’ll know more in 80 days when it’s ready to drink!

cheesemaking and more

Yesterday the Spring rains returned. Wonderful for the environment but a little depressing from the mood perspective. To beat the blues, my friend Amy and I made a trek up to The Beverage People in Santa Rosa. Despite what the name might suggest, we didn't go there to drown our sorrows by hitting the bottle. We went to buy cheesemaking supplies.

There's a wide selection of cheesemaking products online ( is a great resource) but given the choice I think it's so much more enjoyable to browse in person and support a local business. We also discovered (thanks to Amy's resourceful researching) that The Beverage People is where the venerable Cowgirl Creamery buys some of their supplies. That was all the endorsement we needed to head on up there.

So today we got together with our supplies and five gallons of whole goat's milk and made cheese. First we made a goat's milk ricotta (shown draining in the photo above). I wanted to try this variation on the standard cow's milk ricotta for several reasons–one is because I'm lactose intolerant and can better digest goat's milk (which has about a 10% lower level of lactose than cow's milk). The other reason is because I actually prefer the taste of goat cheeses but have never seen a goat version of ricotta. I like making things by hand just for the sheer love of it but it's an added bonus if it also results in something you just can't get by any other means.

For all the same reasons, the next thing we made was a goat's milk mozzarella. Of course I wish we could have made the traditional buffalo mozzarella (not only the tastiest but also low in lactose) but unfortunately there's just nowhere to buy buffalo milk around here. (If anyone has a secret source, please let me know!)

Amy and I were both a little concerned about how the goat's milk would hold up in mozzarella form (wondering if maybe there was a good reason why we don't see this product anywhere?) but our fears proved unfounded, both technically and taste-wise. As far as the technical aspect as the cheesemaking process, even though goat's milk produces a smaller, lighter curd than cow's milk, it set up just fine.

Here is the curd separating from the whey and then the beginning of the draining process:

And then the final straining and unformed curd (before making it into the actual smaller balls):

As far as taste goes, we actually were surprised by how incredibly good both the ricotta and mozzarella made with goat's milk were. Even though I really like the strong "gamey" taste you usually find in goat cheese, it was completely absent from both our cheeses. They tasted sweet and fresh and not goat-like at all (not that that's a bad thing!)

Of course the success of this experience has only further fueled my deep-seated desire to raise Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats. Sigh. Well, until I can make that dream come true at least I have the Pholia Farms goat webcam to keep me company.

chicken run

This past weekend was full of more beautiful sunny days–perfect for an outside construction project with the boys. So on Sunday we started the day with a trip to the hardware store and plans to make a
portable chicken run.

As soon as the pullets (the technical term for a hen less than a year old) are old enough to move outdoors they’ll have a proper coop and a run, and then free-range when I’m working in the garden. But for now (when they’re young and just having daytime visits to the outdoors) we need to protect them from hawks and other predators. And later when they can free-range more safely I’ll still occasionally want some way to contain them to certain parts of the yard (so they don’t eat new seedlings etc.)

I had a vision of what I wanted the portable run to look like and was lucky enough to find a detailed how-to for building just what I had in mind on Mother Earth News.

Even though it would have been fun to design on my own it was incredibly helpful to have the quantities and dimensions all worked out in advance. (Thank you Troy Griepentrog!) There were so many times during the building process when I imagined the trouble I would undoubtedly have gotten myself into without Troy’s plan (like not basing the framing dimensions on a standard width of chicken wire.) The only real change I made to the original plan was
substituting 2 x 2s for the 2 x 4s that were called for. Even though
this compromised the structural integrity of the run, I really needed
it to be light enough (it barely is even now) for me to lift and move
around on my own.

The best part of having the step-by-step guide though was that it allowed me to relax and be able to focus on guiding the kids to do as much as they could. Having them involved was a lot of fun and a great learning opportunity on so many levels–visualization, design, use of materials, measuring, adding, spatial thinking, physics etc. Except for the sawing and drilling (which I did) they were really able to help with quite a lot of the building. Because they were so involved it really held their attention from start to finish. And when we were done they clearly felt a huge sense of accomplishment. An extra bonus to the whole project.

I’m very happy with how it turned out and its already getting a lot of use–not just by the chicks but also by the boys who like to play in it too!


blossoms of hope

I know that Buddhists believe hope and fear are two sides of the same feeling. As long as there is one, there is always the other. To be free from the grasp of fear you also have to let go of hope. The idea of “cultivating hopelessness” is a strange concept for the Western (especially American) mind, but it really resonates with me. I know from personal experience how easy it is to keep bouncing back and forth between those two states of being. It seems the best way to get out of the futile ping-pong game is to try to take the middle road and relax in the present moment. (Easier said than done, of course.)

But…that all said…when sunny Spring days burst forth with such vigor and promise, I still can’t help but be swept up by hopeful feelings! (I tell myself it’s okay as long as I’m still appreciating the here and now.) For the past few days I’ve been marveling at the sculptural blossoms shooting out of my walnut tree. It makes me think back to my December post when the last leaves were falling from the tree. It’s very comforting to see nature fulfilling its mission and destiny right on time, without question or doubt.

The sage plant right outside my kitchen door has also erupted in a profusion of blossoms. As pretty as they are on the plant, I keep thinking about what I could make with them. I like cooking with chive blossoms but I’ve never made anything with sage flowers before. I’m imagining frying them up in brown butter (along with the leaves of course) and serving on some nice homemade ravioli. Mmm, that post might be coming soon.

Oh, and for those who want to read more of the Buddhist perspective on hope and fear, I’d highly recommend Pema Chodron’s book, “When Things Fall Apart”. (There’s also a short excerpt from it here.)