First pick of home-grown blackberries

First pick of home-grown blackberries

My neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks, so that awkward strip of land between property line and county-maintained street is a landscape free-for-all, a curb value coda. A few neighbors fill the space with asphalt. Others plant prim mounds of multicolored lantana, rosemary and lavender bushes, pots of bamboo, or birds of paradise; almost everything grows here. Many carefully groom the space with pebbles that coordinate with their house color. Many also just let weeds and visiting cars fill the space. Last year I ripped out a native landscape garden I’d established in our strip during one enthusiasm in favor of my newest obsession – growing only/mostly things we can eat. Kid Two helped me dig deep holes in the clay dirt, mixing in fine soil, filling the space with tiny springs of bareroot grapes, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and huckleberries. One day, I thought, we’ll be able to pick a few berries as we walk to the beach, or gather an after-school snack, or maybe even grow enough for a batch of homegrown jam. Dream-berries. The reality of a berry patch has certainly not been as glamorous as my fantasy. We navigated the jigsaw puzzle of drip irrigation only once, but everything else is continuous. Fertilizing, mulching, weeding the prickly California roses that kept sprouting up, figuring out how to train the prickly brambles away from the street, from scratching my arms and leaving stickers in my thumb. We’ve done the work randomly, mindlessly, losing track, really of when to expect a harvest. Life was that much sweeter then, after pulling into the driveway from vacation – mind already building the endless...
Biking the Silver Strand

Biking the Silver Strand

  I’d heard there was biking on Coronado. I took this as a personal challenge; there’s nothing more I love than than wandering down a new street or trail. There’s a thrill of discovery in experiencing a new piece of the world first-hand, the sounds and smells and weather, the secrets, all those things you’ll never find from a photo on Google Earth. So, while most vacationing families left the Marriott this particular June morning to check out Legoland or Sea World, I took the proverbial road less traveled, hustling Kid Two into a ferry across the bay to rent fat blue cruisers and take off into our unknown.   The path took us under Highway 75’s swath of blue steel toward our reward, Glorietta Boulevard, a wide, tranquil avenue smelling of eucalyptus and lined on one side with large, lovely homes gazing out over a golf course, a tennis club, the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, and Mad Men-esque towers of the Coronado Shores Condominiums. My plan was to go as far as the trail took us, so instead of a quick loop around the island we turned south at the marina, red-turreted rooftops of the Hotel Del at our backs, to Strand Way. Here it’s a proper bike path smelling of plumeria and rosemary, lilies and lantana – all tidy mounds of shrubs lining a nicely groomed trail.   I’ve led the boys down a few sketchy paths in the past, though, so Kid Two was justifiably suspicious of my plan as the trail took us from plumeria paradise past a enormous, traffic- and construction-laden compound, as we...
Food for the soul

Food for the soul

Seen on my lunchtime walk at the beach: a yellow school bus parked next to a red fire truck, bus driver and firefighters all perched on the low storm wall, alternately sipping coffee, crunching apples, rummaging through coolers, watching the water, waiting for us to need them. Contractors sitting in their pick up trucks, some eating, some holding cell phones to their faces, also gazing out toward the water. A mom’s boot camp taking over a few parking spaces: t-shirt clad women sweating through crunches on blue or purple yoga mats rolled out on the asphalt next to their babies in strollers, attention directed toward a handsomely built man who counts down from 30 and calls out encouraging words. They stop for a few minutes at the nearby drone of a small plane and watch it climb and loop in the sky, practicing contrail cursive.   I walked past an elderly couple sat sharing a sandwich at one picnic table; at another, a group of students were gathered around a laptop. I nodded hello to a Franciscan nun in her full black habit, to two Hare Krishna women with shaved heads and saffron robes, and to a young Amish couple pushing a stroller – she in a long indigo dress and white bonnet, he in black pilgrim hat with a long beard. People from different walks of life, all proudly wearing their faith on their sleeves. I walked past the large Samoan man we often see, clad only in blue track shorts, sweating profusely and grinning broadly at me in recognition. Past a thin man riding his yellow unicycle with a...

Who figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry?

By now you may have heard, thanks to Jamie Oliver and Dr. Oz, that castoreum is a natural flavor behind some of the products we consume. I use the word “behind” literally, since castoreum is the product of a beaver’s anal glands. Castoreum is totally unique, chemically speaking, to the beaver – not to be confused with that stinky defensive spray that comes from a skunk’s anal glands, or reason dogs walk in circles sniffing each other’s rear ends. Same place, different thing. Urban myth or no?

From French Chef to Fat Chef in fifty years

Fifty years ago Julia Child celebrated butter and cream, teaching us how to craft soufflés and beef Wellington on The French Chef. When her show was originally on the air, the average weight of an adult woman then was 140 pounds. In 1997 the International Federation of Competitive Eating was founded, and a few years later Man v. Food showed us how you can make a living by traveling and allowing yourself to be filmed stuffing as much food into your body in one sitting literally as humanly possible. Now the Food Network takes Fat Chefs and teaches them how to not eat quite so much and how to work off the calories. Today the average weight of an adult woman today is 164 pounds. There is, I think, connection here. Frank Bruni has been writing some thoughtful essays recently about how we are most likely genetically programmed toward weight gain, pointing out that the way in which we’ve become experts at processing food crops has led to the creation of a tremendous array of irresistibly salty, sweet, tasty, calorie-dense, and cheap things to grab and munch on at will. (Read the piece – he’s got some excellent points – then read the comments, which are also quite insightful.) This is Michael Pollan’s big point in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, showing how we take the million of acres of corn we grow and not just feeding it to the animals we eat, but reformulating it into almost a dozen more components of processed foods: For modified or unmodified starch, for crystalling fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and...

Is making dinner getting boring? How about glowing sushi?

I know a few things about zebrafish, much of it from writing Animalfish Alphabet. I know that they are small, non-aggressive, inexpensive aquarium fish. They are native to Southeast Asian rivers and streams. They easy to breed and produce transparent embryos, so scientists love to study them. They were the first fish in outer space. Our bala sharks think they are a tasty treat. You have a chance to see if zebrafish are a tasty treat, too, if you live in a state that allows the sale and possession of GloFish®. If this is for real, you’ll have an interesting conversation dish at your next dinner party. Assuming your guests don’t mind reading the advised safety essay that begins, “Are Transgenic Fluorescent Zebrafish Safe for Humans?” Go ahead and watch the video – it’s only 2:22 seconds out of your life. I guarantee you’ll be amused – unless you’re horrified.   I’m going to pass. My boys are already scared of Jell-O.  ...
Algae burger on rye, anyone?

Algae burger on rye, anyone?

You will probably never deliberately order an algae burger on rye, a bean-and-algae burrito, or an algae caesar salad. But a day will eventually come when you will be inadvertently making algae a part of your diet: How can this be, you wonder? Start by enjoying this cool stop-motion animation, an illustration of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules created by the team of Marija Jacimovic and Benoit Detalle for an RSA competition: embedded by Embedded Videovimeo Direkt (Did you like it? Help them win by voting here.) In the video, Pollan made the point: In 2008, which was a year of supposed food crisis, we grew enough food to feed 11 billion people. Most of it was not eaten by humans as food, however; a great deal of it was fed to animals, about half, to feed our meat habit. And a great deal, especially in the United States, was fed to automobiles, because we’re driving our cars on food right now. We hear that meat takes an enormous amount of resources to produce –  water, land, crops, pesticides, fertilizer – all tied up in feeding the animals to get them all nice and fat and ready for us to eat. Wouldn’t it be great if that could all change? If we could figure out a way to feed our warm-blooded protein sources without sacrificing clean water and whole grain for humans? To really have our cake and eat it too? An article today in Grist by Claire Thomson discusses how that may come to be. Researchers are figuring out a way to substitute algae-based animal feed for corn and soy-based feed...

National Center for Home Food Preservation

My holiday zucchini pickles and bacon jam were my first attempt at food preservation, and I was pretty concerned and careful to do everything safely, relying on and cross-checking the validity of online sources for my instruction. Recently a Life In A Skillet reader who is a master gardener and home preservation expert, let me know about this website, and I wish I would have found it to begin with. It’s got straightforward, instructional, research-based information on canning, freezing, pickling, and the like. Excellent guidelines. There’s also great information on basic home food storage – you  may think you’ve got it down pat, but I guarantee you probably know someone just moving out of their childhood home who will benefit from knowing that an opened bottle of mustard will only last for 6 – 8 months, and opened peanut butter only 2 – 3 months. Check it out, and pass it along to your friends: National Center for Home Food...
Squash blossoms in paradise

Squash blossoms in paradise

Here’s a question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could bring one book with you with the stipulation that all your food – recipes as well as ingredients – must come from that book, what book would you choose? (be sure to answer the question in the comments; prize for the best answer!) My friend at Novelbite would definitely be able to recommend an actual piece of literature that would have enough sustenance in food AND story. For me, though, there’s no question – I’d choose a cookbook – California Rancho Cooking. I found it several years ago in Sutter’s Fort gift shop in Sacramento during Kid Two’s fourth-grade pilgrimage to our state’s capital. The fort was built in 1821; much still stands as a visual demonstration of life in that era. Recognizing author Jacqueline Higuera McMahon’s name from her occasional San Francisco Chronicle food section stories, I bought it immediately. It turned out to be was a perfect book for the place; she’s an eight-generation Californian whose family received one of last Spanish land grant ranchos in 1821, just before Mexican independence. Ok, so it’s thin on plot, but she sprinkles in enough glimpses of rancho life to keep my imagination flowing on a desert island. Plus, the flavor of life on a rancho is mouth-watering; from simple breakfasts of sweet milk tortillas to picnics of spicy chicken and potato salad to celebrations studded with Chilean empanadas and sweet tamales, those Spanish and Mexican roots come through strong. It’s the perfect book for my sense of place, too. I know why there’s a recipe featuring wild mustard greens; I...

How does your summer vegetable garden grow? | Daily Dish | Los Angeles Times

A timely article. I’ve spent the past two weeks coordinating – and trying to do some of the hard work – of tearing out the non-edible parts of the landscaping in our 4000 square foot lot by the sea and planting to eat. Inspired by Novella Carpenter’s Farm City, I swapped the yucca and curly willow in the front yard for a Mutsu apple and an Aprium, tucking yerba buena, thyme, and oregano between stepping stones of fossil rock scavenged from the beach. Sod beneath the no-longer enjoyed play structure made way for raised beds filled with (local) chicken manure and vegetable planting mix, my mind dancing all the while with fantasies of freshly picked frisee salads and zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat cheese on the grill. I’ll let you know how it goes; I’ve really only dabbled in growing veggies before. This latest fancy of mine is a big investment in time, energy, and money, so I want to make sure I do this right. I only know enough to realize it’s hard to grow food when you live next to the sea, where summer mornings are doused in fog and the average temperature isn’t even high enough to successfully grow basil. So far I’ve got an assortment of Oregon Spring and SunGold tomatoes, organic starts from the farmer’s market. Zucchini, summer squash, and three types of cucumber, just to see what grows. Spinach, sweet peas, and lettuce. Lots and lots of lettuce. If I do this right, I’ll never have to buy a bag of greens at the store again. Here is the yard before my garden...

Urban farming

Novella Carpenter is my newest heroine. I’ve just finished reading her book Farm City: Confessions of an Urban Farmer, in which she moves into a ramshackle apartment on a dead-end street in a dead-end Oakland, CA neighborhood and hesitantly plants a garden in the empty lot next door. This quickly grows to a full-scale, tenth of an acre, urban farm, complete with beehive, egg-laying chickens, “meat birds” (ducks, turkeys, and more chickens) and rabbits, all successful experiments is loony locavorism that leads to, by the book’s close, her careful cultivation of two Red Duroc pigs for future meals. Carpenter lives the intersections of food with community and environment in a high crime, low income, politically weak area, and her observations become the backdrop to her story. She does such an excellent job at demonstrating a way of life instead of evangelizing it, and made me think about abundance and waste in different terms. She’s also a completely engaging writer, open and funny in telling her story. I laughed out loud several times, especially when she describes feeding her pigs their first meal scavenged from a Chinatown dumpster. The key to Farm City, however, is that although its premise of two white kids growing vegetables and butchering rabbits in the inner city sounds like it could be the teaser of a doomed Hollywood movie, she is genuinely honest and passionate about her avocation; there is nothing precious, pretentious, self-righteous, or gimmicky in her tale. This book came along at a perfect time for me. We took down the play structure just as winter started and have been thinking about how best...