Saturday, December 25, 2010

Farewell, Old Friend

Spider came home from the pound with me on March 28, 1997. They told me they thought she was about 6 months old then, so I decided that September 28th would be her birthday. She had been brought to the pound with her mama, who was put down while at the pound, and though she was very sweet, she was also nervous & scared. I don't know what her life was like before she got to the pound, but I suspected that she and her mama were neglected and not treated very nice. Long after she left her old life behind, she still spent her whole life terrified of fireworks and loud noises. The day I took her home with me, I promised her that I would always do my best to protect her and be her friend, and honestly, it is she who has been the best friend to me ever since that day.

I didn't know much about raising a dog when I brought her home with me, and my learning process was trial by fire. It's hard to believe that the same little rascal who destroyed my apartment - speaker cables, window ledges, chairs, shoes, table legs, blinds, and anything else she could get her teeth on - grew into such a regal, mature, and dignified old soul.

Even though I adopted her, Lucio was her dear friend and trusted caretaker practically from day one, and she was also lucky to have many other human and dog friends throughout her long life. She grew up surrounded by live music, and would frequently just lay right down in front of the drum kit during our various rehearsals. She was happy as long as she could be right by our side, and it always troubled her greatly when the pack was separated. She loved to chase the ball and swim, and boy did she ever love to eat.

She did a lot of traveling with us over the years, and lived in many different places around Berkeley and Oakland, and even did a brief stint in Phoenix. When I look back on all the turns my life has taken over the last 14 years, it was always she who was the constant, she who held me up with her gentle loving presence no matter what kind of chaos was happening in my life.

When John and Bloom came into her life, John became yet another trusted caretaker & friend to Spider, and although it took her a little while to adjust to having a 150-pound "little" brother, Bloom idolized her and was always happy to be right by her side... which she didn't mind too much, as long has he didn't get too close. As she reached the end of her life, she tended to like to have more space to herself. but she was plenty happy to share the couch with Bloom. And in fact, the young dog taught the old dog a new trick. When she discovered that he got treats for rolling over, it didn't take her long at all to roll over herself!

Spider moved on from this world on December 22, 2010. Words can't express how heartbreaking it was to watch her become uncomfortable and pained in her old body, and to accept that it was time to let her go. In fact I had spent so much time dwelling on my fear of this, that I never stopped to consider that it could be a beautiful and moving experience, and it really was. I feel incredibly fortunate that when it was time, she was able to be surrounded by her closest loved ones - Lucio, John, Bloom and me. As heartbreaking as it was, we couldn't have asked for a better send off for her, and we knew without a doubt that this tired old soul was ready to go. In some small way, that made it easier. That, and knowing that she was loved by so many, every single moment of her life. She will always be loved, and we miss her very much.

If you click on the link at the beginning of this post, you'll be taken to a photo gallery of some pics of her throughout her life. I took some of the pics, and many of them were taken by Lucio, including the most awesome one at the beginning of this page. We love you, Spider!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Tokyo Turnips

My, oh my. I'm so digging my new love affair with Tokyo turnips! In case there was any doubt, an old dog *can* learn new tricks. I don't know how I managed to go forty-something years without these root vegetables in my life, but I'll tell you - now that I've found them, they are here to stay!

First, I bought some to include in a vegetable stew I was making. I'd had them once before at a catering job I was working at, where they were pickled Japanese style and I remembered loving them. I suspected that these turnips, so small and delicate, looked like they'd be good in my stew, instead of the larger ones that have a purple tinge.

After cleaning them and dicing them, I ate a cube raw. And then I ate another, and another, and another, until there were hardly any left to go into the stew! They have such a delicate flavor, so wintery and crunchy, sweet and juicy and a little bit spicy. They remind me of a cross between a radish and a turnip, and I find them totally addictive. And I love that you can eat them raw, or cook them. When you cook them, they become even more delicate and almost buttery. And you can, and should, cook the greens, and even the stems. There's nothing not to love about these babies!

So I put them into my stew, and they melded beautifully. And the next night, I put them into an Indian-style stew with black-eyed peas, kabocha squash and coconut milk, and they were the star of the show. At least, the ones that made it into the pot and weren't eaten raw while I was cooking.

I would post a recipe for how to use them, but really, I think the best way to eat them is to enjoy them raw, or lightly steam them, greens, stems & all, and sprinkle with a little salt.

Since they grow well in colder weather, I'm thinking I'd like to try to grow them in my garden, if I could ever find a way to keep the dang squirrels from destroying everything that is planted out there!

For now, I'm just happy to be enjoying something new to me, something delightful that thrives when the weather is cold and the sunlight is scarce.

Until next time, I'll just be over here inhaling my Tokyo turnips with a big, dumb grin on my face!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Now, About that Winning Chili Recipe…

So sorry to keep you waiting! I got sidetracked by Life - you know, big stuff like…. getting engaged!!!!

And then my dear old dog Spider suffered a near-death experience and we thought for sure she wasn't going to make it. But judging by how shamelessly she continues to beg and how boundlessly she still runs up & down the stairs, I'm happy to say that she seems to want to stick around for a little while longer, and I'm thrilled and thankful for that!

So the news is good all the way around, yes it is! It's a win-win-win situation. Now let's get to talking about that winning chili recipe, shall we?

First things first - the recipe was inspired by this link: a very detailed recipe and worth reading!

And second things second - I cooked the beans using this method. And of course, it's ok to use canned beans if that's what suits your fancy.

As for the dried chiles, you can find them at your local Mexican market. And also, you can vary them if you desire. I used the ones I had on hand it it happened to turn out perfectly.

You'll see that the recipe calls for fresh habanero chiles, frozen. The reason for freezing them is because it mellows the heat significantly, and that's why you can use so many of them in one recipe without burning your pants off. And you can certainly use less or leave them out if that's how you like it!

And lastly... the recipe calls for Marmite. I've always thought of that as some weird thing my friends from across the pond like to keep in their cupboards. But let me tell you, it really adds something essential and robust to this chile paste, and I would not leave it out! In fact now I'm a little obsessed with finding other recipes in which to sneak a little Marmite!

And now, without further adieu…

Val's Award Winning Chili Recipe

2 dried chile California - with seeds

2 dried chile New Mexico - with seeds

2 dried chile de Arbol, seeds removed

1 1/2 T. cumin seeds

1 1/2 T. coriander seeds

1 t. unsweetened cocoa powder

1 T. coffee beans, very finely ground

1 star anise

2 T. tomato paste

2 medium pasilla chiles, diced

2 medium red bell peppers, diced

4 medium green bell peppers, diced

5 habanero chiles, frozen

2 onions, diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 T. oregano

4 cups vegetable stock

2 t. soy sauce

1 t. marmite

2 bay leaves

1 28 ounce can tomato puree

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup tequila

15 cups beans - I used a combo of black, pinto, kidney and white beans. *See notes below.

1-3 T. brown sugar

Seed the New Mexico & Arbol chiles, and then toast them, along with the unseeded California chiles, in a hot skillet for about 1 minute or so on each side, just until they start to brown and smoke a little, and then set aside.

Toast and grind the cumin & coriander seeds and the star anise, and set aside.

Bring 1 cup of the stock to a boil in separate pan and add the toasted chiles and 1 habanero pepper. Simmer over medium heat until the liquid is reduced by about half.

Put this liquid/chile mixture, along with the toasted chiles and ground spices into a food processor or blender and add the ground coffee, cocoa powder, tomato paste, soy sauce and the marmite. Blend into a paste and set aside.

Fire roast the other 4 habaneros and then finely dice them. Easiest way to do this is to put them on a skewer and hold them over the flame on your gas stove, turning occasionally, until they start to blister & blacken.

Next up: saute' the diced onion in a couple tablespoons olive oil for about 8-10 minutes until starting to soften. Then add the fresh diced fresh chiles, oregano and garlic.

Add the diced roasted habaneros and the chile paste to the onions & peppers. Heat at medium high until the paste starts to sizzle & coat the pan. Then add the other 3 cups of stock and 2 bay leaves, plus the beans (see below), 1 28 oz. can tomato puree, 1/4 cup cider vinegar and 1/2 cup tequila. Don't forget the salt - I must have easily added a good tablespoon, but just do it to taste, adding a little at a time and letting it absorb fully into the chili. Cook until it's done! This should take 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, over very low heat. Once it's done, add the brown sugar to your liking. It'll be even better the next day!

* I used all beans that I'd cooked in advance until *just* done - did not cook until terribly tender because the beans cook more in the chili. Here's the combination of beans I used:

6 cups black beans

2 cups pinto beans

4 1/2 cups kidney beans

2 1/2 cups cannellini beans

And that's it! Now that you've made your chili, it's time to enter it in a contest… or just invite 20 or so of your friends to come over & help you eat it! Either way, you can't lose!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Full of Beans!

So as per my last posting, I've been crazily cooking dried beans in an effort to find out just how the hell it is that you really cook dried beans.

For years, I've been cooking beans from scratch but the results have almost always been entirely inconsistent. The same pot might have some beans that are perfectly tender, some that are overcooked to the point of exploding, and a few that are bordering upon raw. I mean, what the hell?!! They all cooked in the same pot! How could this be?

I have always cooked my beans slowly, at a low temperature, and more often than not, I soak them. I have always gone with the recommended standard of not adding salt until the beans are tender. But it never seemed to matter. I longed to be able to turn out the kind of beans in my kitchen that I'd get when I would go to a local Mexican restaurant and order a side of whole pinto or black beans: plump, perfectly tender and full of flavor, and with a velvety skin. Why couldn't I EVER achieve that kind of result in my own kitchen?!

Naturally, I turned to the experts but that only resulted in more frustration. Even Alice Flipping Waters says to just cover the beans with water and cook until they're done! Rick Bayless says that true Mexicans don't soak their beans, and that the key is to just cook the beans in massive quantities. Well, that might work for a restaurant but it's not necessarily practical for the average home cook. I consulted the Dona Tomas cookbook and the Joy of Cooking. Everyone seems to act like it's just natural to easily cook dried beans, as easy as breathing!

What the HELL?! I just couldn't accept that. I started asking around. A couple of my dear friends, Jamie and Kathleen, who happen to be fantastic cooks, admitted that they have the same problem with dried beans. They never cook quite right. I was sad to hear this but it also made me feel validated. Maybe I'm not just a complete bean-cooking idiot.

So I started poking around on the internet, consulting food science writing on the matter, and growing more and more frustrated. Most sources seemed to say it was simple - soak the beans (or don't), cook and don't add salt until the end. In fact, most sources say you'll ruin the beans if you add salt too soon - that it would in fact make the skins rupture before the beans were really done.

But then I stumbled upon a chili recipe which made the outrageous claim that you not only soak the beans with salt, but that you also add the salt when you cook them, right in the beginning. This was contrary to most everything I'd ever read, but I was willing to try anything at this point!

Right around the same time, I also found an article claiming that in order to make fool-proof, perfect beans, without even soaking, that you first boil them on the stove and then finish them in the oven. And I tried this method, both with soaked and un-soaked beans. And the soaked beans definitely had the best texture of any bean I'd ever cooked, but they still tasted a little bland.

So then, I tried first soaking the beans WITH salt, and then boiling and cooking them in the oven WITH salt, and lo and behold, I ended up with the most perfect batch of beans I'd ever cooked in my life. Tender and delicate but by no means mealy. Plump and juicy, salty and smooth, with hardly any beans having split open. Again... What the HELL?! It's contrary to what everyone says, but at this point, I couldn't care less! Because I've made several batches of beans this way now, and they've been by far the best beans I've ever cooked. And people, I have cooked a LOT of beans!

So here's my take on how to cook the most succulent dried beans:

First, soak your dried beans 8 hours or overnight in plenty of salted water. I don't measure much - if I have like a cup or two of dried beans, I add a teaspoon or so of salt. If I've got something closer to a pound, I might add closer to a tablespoon of salt.

After soaking, discard the soaking water and pre-heat your oven to 250. Put the beans in a heavy duty pot that has a fitted lid. Cover with fresh water by about an inch or so. Add more salt and any aromatics. Depending on the type of bean, I usually like to add half an onion, some crushed garlic cloves, a carrot or two, a bay leaf and either a splash of olive oil or a cheese rind - yes, a cheese rind! Adds a nice rich, salty depth.

Bring the beans to a boil on the stove. Once boiling, turn off the stove and put the beans into the pre-heated oven with the lid on the pot. Start checking after 45 minutes or so - depending on how long you've soaked, them, they may be ready that soon or they may take as long as 90 minutes. Recently I cooked black beans that took about 90 minutes - and they were hands down the most perfect pot of black beans I'd ever cooked - as good as the beans I'd get in the local Mexican restaurant, finally!! Cannellini beans using the same method only took 45 minutes until they were meltingly tender. Red kidney beans took about an hour. So you'll need to pay attention, but it's worth the effort, I tell you! I'll never go back to cooking beans the old way.

So that's more than my two cents on beans. Next up, I'm going to post my recipe for chili which features a big damn lot of beans! And yes, it's ok to use canned - I wouldn't blame you a bit if you opted for that - but in case you feel like using beans that you cooked from scratch (and saving a whole lot of money in the process, I might add!), then I urge you to try making them this way. And also, I'd love to hear about your results, too!

Happy bean making, friends! Stay tuned for that chili recipe!

Monday, November 15, 2010

We Are the Champions!

If you've been reading this blog for a couple of years, you may recall that one time, I tied for second place in a chili cook-off.

This event is always a blast, a wonderful good time featuring music and food and drink to benefit the Mother Ann Wright Foundation - a grass roots organization that feeds hundreds of people in need, every single day of the year.

Winning anything at all should have been thrilling, right? But honestly, I take my cooking seriously - a little TOO seriously, some might say, because instead of being excited that I won second place, I was sore that I didn't win first place. I mean, come on! It's a benefit, for crying out loud! A benefit to feed the homeless! What the hell was wrong with me?! Believe me, I asked myself that a lot around that time.

Fast forward to this year. I was excited to make chili just for the fun of making chili. I'd recently been on an insane quest to figure out the perfect method for cooking dried beans, and I think I've finally found it! That's going to require a separate post entirely!

In my quest to find the perfect way to cook beans, I stumbled upon this chili recipe, which looked amazing. But I wanted my chili to be veggie this year, so I decided to adapt it.

More importantly, I decided to make the chili just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I remembered my insane disappointment from not winning previously and knew that I couldn't let myself go to that place, and so I didn't. I just made the chili and served it up with no attachment to winning or even caring about winning.

But, guess what?

I WON!!!

Sure was thrilling to snag that trophy!

And I have to send out serious kudos to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats, for the original recipe was his... and he freely encourages folk to use it as a starting point and adapt as they see fit, and so I did. I'll post my recipe soon, but first I have to do a separate post about cooking dried beans, so stay tuned, friends!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pickle Time

Dang it, the summer flew by and suddenly it was almost, almost too late to make pickles. But luckily, I happened to be shopping the other day and noticed the market still had pickling cucumbers and flowering dill, so I loaded up my cart and went on my merry way.

Then last night, in less time than it takes to make dinner, we made pickles.

Of course, they won't be ready to eat for a week or two or three, because we are making them using natural fermentation. Do you know about the book Wild Fermentation? It's a great resource authored by Sandor Katz, about the many benefits of making your own fermented treats - like yogurt, pickles, and sauerkraut. Of course, he doesn't just sing the praises of fermented foods, he tells you how to make them!

You can find the precise recipe for pickles here, or better yet, get your own copy of the book! But below is a rough guide to how we do it.

First, you don't have to use flowering dill but it's nice to use if you can get it. You can use regular fresh dill or dried dill.

The Wild Fermentation site recommends that you make your pickles in a crock, but we always make them in mason jars.

So here's what you'll need:

3 2-quart mason jars

3-4 lbs pickling cucumbers
2-4 bunches fresh flowering dill, or fresh dill
2-3 heads garlic
3-4 T. whole black peppercorns
Salt and water

First, make the brine. You'll need enough to cover all your pickles so you might want to start with 2 quarts water with 6 T. salt mixed into it. This probably won't be enough brine to cover all your pickles, but you can easily make more.

Rinse the pickles and the dill. Peel and smash the garlic cloves and distribute them evenly amongst your clean pickle jars.

Roughly crush the peppercorns in a mortar & pestle, or if you don't have one, crush them with a rolling pin on a cutting board. Divide the peppercorns into the jars.

Divide the dill evenly into the jars, and then add the cucumbers to the jars.

Now pour the brine over the pickles, and, if you need to, make a little more brine. You want enough to nearly cover the cucumbers.

Sandor Katz recommends you place a plate on top of the pickles to immerse them completely, but we've found that a clean beer bottle with a little water in it is the perfect way to weigh the pickles down and immerse them fully.

Cover the pickles loosely with a clean towel and put them in a cool place. Mr. Katz recommends you taste the pickles after a few days, and then check them daily. We have tended to only taste them about once every week or so, and that's worked out fine for us. Regardless of how much tasting you do, you'll want to skim off any mold that may form on the top, and rinse any mold off the bottles too.

Depending on the temperature, and how sour you like them, your pickles should be perfectly delicious and ready for crunching in one to four weeks.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Welcome Back, Herb Butter

Fall seems to really be upon us this time. No more summery teasers, just cooler air and grayer skies and scattered showers, and for me anyway, an intense desire to make soup. A desire bordering, of course, upon obsession. Lately I have not wanted to eat anything else, and so all week long, it's all soup, all the time. Of course, I write these words on a Monday and so far, it's only been two days of soup. Yesterday it was lentil vegetable for dinner (and this morning for breakfast too), tonight's dinner (and surely tomorrow's breakfast or lunch): mushroom barley with homemade mushroom stock. Tomorrow night it's going to be Middle Eastern Spinach Soup from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu cookbook, and the next night, Deborah Madison's Parsnip Carrot Soup from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

All along, so far, the magic bonus ingredient has been herb butter that I hastily whipped up last week with some leftover thai basil, dill and shallots that I had laying around. And I'm reminded of what a wonderful staple this is to have in your pantry - or rather, freezer. I haven't only used it in soup recently. Over the weekend I fried and egg in it - what a way to elevate your basic average fried egg on toast to something sophisticated and elegant!

I highly recommend you make yourself a slab of herb butter next time you have some leftover herbs wanting to feel completely loved. It's easy - bring a stick of butter (I prefer unsalted) to room temperature. Once it's nice & soft, blend some finely diced herbs into it using a rubber spatula - 2 to 2 1/2 T. is a good amount, and if you are so inclined, you can add some finely diced shallot and grated lemon zest, along with a light sprinkling of salt.

Once the herbs and enhancements have been blended into the butter, smear the whole lot of it onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper and shape into a roll. Throw it in the freezer and when frozen, cut it into slices and store the slices in a glass or plastic container, taking out a slice or two to use as needed.

Just think: herb butter melting into a mountain of garlic mashed potatoes or a steaming squash biscuit or creamy scrambled eggs or a hot pot of stew or freshly steamed root vegetables....I'm sure you get the picture and I bet you have dishes of your own that are crying out for a little herb butter love, so bring 'em on!

I'm thinking the cold weather season is going to be a whole lot easier to stand as long as I've got lots of soup and lots of herb butter.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Today would have been my Grandma Esway's 111th birthday.

I wouldn't have even known it was her birthday except for the fact that I realized recently that since I've moved, the few photos that I have of her haven't resurfaced yet. So I asked my parents to scan a photo and send it to me. And it happened that the photo that my Mom sent happened to be a photo of her on her birthday (which, coincidentally, also features a roughly three year old me, sitting there right next to her!), and Mom also pointed out that her birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Grandma!

I still miss her and wish that I could have known her better. I bet my parents and all of her children and grandchildren still miss her too. I've been thinking a lot about how we are never really ready to say goodbye to those we love. I've been thinking a lot about how I wish I could have known her better, and for that matter, my Grandpa Esway, who died when I was young enough not to be able to remember much of him - and both of my grandparents on my Mom's side too, whom I remember but wish that I had known so much better than I did.

I was very inspired recently by my friend Taralinda's recent posting about Dia de los Muertos, aka the Day of the Dead - a time to honor our ancestors. So I am taking this moment to honor my grandparents and thank them for everything they sacrificed so that I can be sitting right here, right now, writing these words.

My Grandma Esway married very young and most certainly lived a difficult life - the likes of which I can only imagine. She never had a fraction of the choices or options that someone like me has today, and she never had much money, but somehow, whenever I was with her, I felt like the richest person who ever lived. And despite whatever material items she may have lacked, she definitely helped to inspire my love of food and feeding people and reveling in the kitchen. And I seriously think of her and give thanks for her every time I use her cast iron skillet, which is practically every time I cook. And I know that no matter what I make in that skillet, there is always a little of her magic in it, and a little of her love, which no doubt makes everything that comes out of it taste that much more delightful.

So Happy Birthday, Grandma. Thanks for the inspiration.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Last Taste of Summer

Greetings from the Last Day of Summer. How did that happen so mother flipping fast?!!!!!??? Summer is officially over even though it hardly ever got here in the first place! Tomorrow is the vernal equinox and then the days just get shorter and shorter. Soon it will be time for roasting vegetables and carving pumpkins and baking bread and harvesting the fall crops in our new garden that we finally had a chance to plant this weekend - lots of salad greens, chard, kale, beets, cabbage and broccoli, oh my!

But for now, it turns out to be a very happy coincidence that tonight's dinner featured the very last bits of goodness from our summer garden at the old house.

We had one last small handful of padron peppers and sweet italian peppers, and a lone midget red bell pepper that we tossed into Grandma Esway's old cast iron skillet, and we quickly fried and then ate them with coarse salt while standing in the kitchen waiting for the tomato soup to finish simmering. I think she very much would have approved of tonight's meal. Dad, you would too!!

The soup was made with the last batch of big fat plump juicy tomatoes from the old garden, supplemented by a handful of dry-farmed early girl tomatoes from local farm Dirty Girl Produce.

The tomatoes got simmered with shallots & onions cooked in a little butter and a little water, and sat there simmering for what felt like so many hours that we thought for sure that we'd never, ever get to eat the soup. But good things come to those who wait. Especially if those who are waiting happen to have a batch of fried peppers to tide them over!

The last day of summer turned out to be not so bad at all, and I'm feeling pretty excited to greet the fall and all of the goodness that it will bring, too. On to new adventures!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Some Things are Worth Repeating

Well hello, stranger! It sure has been awhile. Lifetimes have passed, or at least it feels that way. It's a new era, in a new home, and it's almost a new season, with summer slipping away quietly. Couldn't let it go without sneaking in a little getaway to one of my most favorite places ever: Big Sur!

The dinner we cooked in our little cabin last year was so delightful, we had to give it a repeat performance using this year's tomato harvest from our garden at the old place. Oh, am I going to miss that garden.

The weather was just perfect, the scenery dreamy as ever, and there was much lounging with dog friends.

And how crazy is it that I spent much of my life in Arizona, but I had to go to Big Sur to find myself in the company of a real live scorpion? I guess there's a first for everything. Thankfully no one was stung and all ended well for everyone but the poor scorpion. We found out later that the kind of scorpions that hang around California are not poisonous, but I guess I'm glad we didn't take any chances. Poison or no, it's better to not be stung!

When we got back to Oakland, even though I was not quite ready for the getaway to end, it felt so nice to come home. It was a hot afternoon and the house was baking, so we did a little yard work and set up a table on the back patio like we'd been meaning to do ever since we moved in. Later we got Thai take out from King of Thai Noodle and sat on the cool patio eating it, once again savoring the perfect summer-ness of it all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome Home

Or maybe should I say, welcome to my new bulk goods cabinet! Yes, these kinds of things excite me. I am love, love, LOVING the new digs. This cabinet was originally used to house an ironing board, but I try to never own anything that requires ironing! And on the rare occasion that I may find myself needing to iron in the future, I'll just pull the old ironing board out of the BASEMENT. Oh, to have a basement to keep things! It's a wonderful luxury, to be sure.

And speaking of the basement.... last night I discovered a remnant left behind by the previous owners of the house: a small container filled with old teeth. You know, just in case we break some of ours and need a replacement tooth, there is a variety to choose from! Little teeth, big teeth, teeth with fillings. Yeah, it's kind of creepy and gross but I refuse to let it stop me from loving this place! I don't know where the teeth came from and I'm not sure I want to know, but the vibe here is good, that much is for certain.

It's been completely hectic getting moved out of the old place and into the new place, hence my extreme lack of posting. But little by little, progress is happening. Meals are being cooked. Grass is growing. Boxes are getting unpacked, and despite the chaos, it all feels wonderful!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Padron Pepper Break

The chaos around here continues, along with the poor nutrition and sloppy surroundings. I think I've gained five pounds in the last week alone, due to the interruption in my normal way of eating/ in, I haven't really been cooking. And as much as I sometimes enjoy eating out, after two or three meals in a row, I just long for something simple and cooked with my own hands. But with the kitchen 75% dismantled (and my whole life, for that matter), there just hasn't been the time, nor the mental space.

Thankfully, in spite of the chaos in here, out there in the yard, the garden just keeps on growing. As it turns out, the garden doesn't really care about your chaos as long as you remember to give it a little love, attention and water. And so far, it hasn't been TOO busy in here to remember to do that. And so the garden has rewarded us.

Tonight, and seemingly overnight, we discovered a big fat handful of Padron peppers that were ripe for the picking. And pick them we did, along with one perfect tomato. I can hardly wait to fry the peppers tomorrow and eat them with sliced tomatoes and just picked lettuce from the garden. It will be the most perfect antidote to all the heavy, fat-filled takeout meals we've been eating, and I can hardly wait.

As much as I'm looking forward to completing this move and making that first feast in the new place, I'm really savoring the last days of being here and enjoying this wonderful garden. I really hope that whomever lives here next will want to keep on nurturing it and loving it and growing it and in turn, be rewarded by its lovely abundance.

Until next time, cheers!

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Digs

I became a homeowner (again) on Thursday, July 8th, 2010. I'm still kind of pinching myself about it. How did that happen?!

I spent so much time over the last few months worrying about what would happen if I *didn't* get the place, if the loan *didn't* come through, that I neglected to really consider the enormity of what it would be like if everything DID come through.

Well, it did! And soon, I'll be off to a new (but admittedly, smaller) kitchen with marble counter tops and a new stove! Abundant closet space and windows! More than one bathroom! A music room and a guest room, oh my!

And yet, in spite of how thrilled I am, I'm a little freaked out about it too. I fear my days of eating out are over for the foreseeable future. I even had a nightmare recently, thanks to being too addicted to The Wire, that I was about to go to prison to serve time for being a heroin dealer. And I wasn't worried about life in prison, or leaving my friends and family behind, oh no. I was only worried that I'd lose my house because I wouldn't be able to pay my mortgage. Uh, someone needs to step away from the television set. But that shouldn't be very difficult, because suddenly it feels like every single day and night for the next many months will be swallowed up by the act of dismantling one place and shoving its contents into boxes, transporting them to another place and bit by bit, turning that new place into a warm, cozy, inviting, comforting home. It's a project that could take a long, long time. And also, one that I am delighted to be able to sink my teeth into.

It's going to be a slow process getting all the stuff from here to there, one that will take the next several weeks. It's a little overwhelming. Our current digs are more chaotic than ever, filled with half-packed boxes and nervous dogs and a sloppy, stuff-strewn kitchen, and a fridge full of limp vegetables that have been sadly lacking attention. So tonight I chopped and stirred into a pot whatever I could find in there - onion, celery, carrots, cabbage, tomato sauce, potatoes, cooked pinto beans and yogurt. And from the pantry: french green lentils and quinoa and garlic. You might not call it delicious or even cohesive, but it wasn't bad either, and we called it dinner...and also, we called it Slop, Goulash, Gruel and Clean Out the Fridge Stew.

Something tells me I might have to get used to this kind of thing for the next little while - to that and eating takeout. But I am by no means complaining. I keep dreaming of the first meal I'll cook in the new place while the sunlight streams through the window with the stereo blasting, even though that time seems like light years away. I have no idea what it will be, or even when, but at least now, it's closer than it ever was before, and I am very thankful.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Green Things

It's not easy being green sometimes. I had such high hopes for this big pile of fresh fava beans that a friend from work gave me. I also had peas, lemons, white wine, and a little cream. And some pasta. Should have been all the makings for a perfect summer meal, right?

Well who are we kidding? Summer in the Bay area is all about bleak, grey skies. And bleak about sums up the end result after all my time spent tirelessly shucking the fava beans and slipping each little bugger from its skin. I just really don't know how to make a cream sauce, as it turns out. And I don't know how to fake it either.

As it happens, I guess I'm good at making grey goop, because after sauteing the favas & peas with a little garlic & olive oil, and adding some splashes of white wine, lemon juice and half & half, I decided it might be good to puree some of the mixture to make a sauce. Except it didn't make a sauce, it made something more like the consistency of... goop.

So I added some pasta water and kept on pureeing. And despite my efforts, it never really became sauce. But after all this work, I couldn't waste it. So onto the pasta it went. I wouldn't call it a BAD dinner, but I wouldn't exactly call it good either. Oh well, I guess they can't all be winners. Note to self: next time, follow a recipe.

There was a consolation prize however. I ventured out into the garden after dinner and noticed the kale plants are getting quite hardy, especially now that we've successfully beaten the slugs, with a little help from iron phosphate slug bait. Wish I'd discovered the stuff before the slimy jerks managed to eat half the garden, but better late than never. Just looking at this kale, I'm already feeling confident that tomorrow's dinner will be much better than tonight's. Some kinds of green are easy after all, and thank goodness for that.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Homemade Corn Tortillas

Why buy tortillas at the store when you can make your own??? If you thought you couldn't make your own, I'm going to beg to differ, cause I'm going to show you how. It's not that hard, I promise, you'll see! Now I'm sure you can find many places on the web to learn how to do this, but I've been making my own quite a bit lately, and several people have mentioned they'd like to see a tutorial of sorts, so here is my humble take on the matter.

I'm sure I still have a lot to learn , but I think at least for now, I've finally gotten to the point where I can make these babies with some amount of confidence that I'll slay my dinner guests when it's taco night. Ok, granted, usually the only ones eating them are just me and my honey, but I'm telling you, these tortillas slay the living crap out of us, so much so that we now look for ANY EXCUSE to have taco night!

And you know what else is cool? They're CHEAP! You can't beat delicious AND inexpensive!

You'll see from the pictures below that I use a tortilla press to flatten the little balls of masa into tortillas. You can buy one for about $10 - $20 at your local Mexican grocery store, and there are also many places they are available online, like here for instance. (And that big boy in the background is Bloom, who is very interested in taco night, as is Spider, who was busy working on her beauty sleep when this shot was taken.)

The next thing you'll need is some masa harina, which is very finely ground corn flour made from corn that has been dried, cooked, ground up and dried again. The cooking water always contains slaked lime, also known as “limewater,” which gives masa harina its distinctive taste. I use the Maseca brand, which you can also get at your local Mexican grocery store. However, your local store just might carry the fresh masa, in which case you won't have to mix the dough yourself. If you're working from the masa harina, here's how you do it. This recipe makes enough for 8 tortillas, but of course you can double or triple it as you see fit.

Measure out 1 cup of the masa harina, stir in 1/8 teaspoon salt, and slowly stir in 2/3 cup water. Stir it well until a dough forms.
If the dough seems too dry & cakey, slowly and in small increments, add a little more water.

I've found that it works best when the dough ends up being the consistency of Playdough - smooth, pliable and a little bit moist.

You want to be able to easily separate the dough into 8 pieces which you can roll into balls. Once you've done this part, cover the bowl with a damp towel in order to keep them moist.

Now you're ready to press the tortillas. Place a sheet of plastic wrap on either side of your tortilla press and place one of the balls in the middle of the bottom side of the press.

Now pull the arm down and press!

Open carefully, and gently remove the tortilla.

Place it into a pre-heated skillet over medium heat. I use a very well seasoned cast iron skillet, but you can also use a nonstick. The main point is that you don't want the tortillas to stick.

Cook them for a little less than one minute per side, and then you're done!

You can eat your tacos right away, with or without cheap wine from Trader Joe's. Load the tacos up with whatever suits your fancy, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Pesky Pesticides

If you live in California, perhaps you saw the recent headline which read "State Poised to OK supertoxic pesticide"? You can read all about it here, but the basic gist of it is that the state of California has this crazy idea that it might be ok to allow the use of methyl iodide in our soil.

Among other things, methyl iodide is such a reliable cause of cancer that it's used in labs to induce cancer. Breathing methyl iodide fumes can cause lung, liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. It causes nausea, dizziness, coughing and vomiting. Prolonged contact with skin causes burns. Massive inhalation causes pulmonary edema. But astonishingly, those that govern our fine state think it's just a swell idea to dump this crap into our soil. I wonder how much money the pesticide lobbyists paid for this? I am outraged, but then, it's not terribly surprising considering that we live in a world where corporations regularly get away with destroying our environment, right, BP?

Although I have very little hope that it will make a difference, Governor Schwarzenegger is taking comments regarding the use of this poison until the end of this month. I made the call and I hope you will too, and I hope you'll also pass it on. You can reach the Gov. at 916-445-2841. You can also sign a petition to be submitted to the EPA here, and keep updated by visiting the Pesticide Action Network.

Meanwhile, our little garden here is plugging away, with lots of squash blossoms and tomatoes peaking out from tiny flowers, and the kale is growing like weeds. The basil seems to be getting devoured by slugs, but I'm not feeling a need to poison the soil with cancer causing chemicals! I was thinking I'd start with treating the little slimy creatures to a cup of beer or a sprinkling of salt. Cause beer and salt aren't only good in the kitchen!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Ok, I just made the best salad, so good that I had to stop right now, my belly close to bursting, and tell you about it.

But first, I have to tell you that yesterday we went to the Grand Lake Farmers Market, specifically to have lunch at our friend Jenya's booth. She's one of the proprietors and chefs of Vesta Flatbread, and we are big fans of not only Jenya, but of all the wonderful culinary delights created by the folks at Vesta. If you live in the Bay area, please do yourself a favor and go enjoy a Vesta Flatbread sandwich and beverage.

I guarantee you that once you've tried it, you'll be hooked. Jenya & her partner Traci use only the finest, highest quality, locally sourced ingredients. And they create delicious offerings whether you are a carnivore or a vegetarian.

So while we were at the market, we picked up some beautiful, crunchy, super sweet baby carrots from the Happy Boy Farm booth. If you're used to eating those bagged peeled baby carrots, trust me, there is no comparison. These baby carrots are so good you can just basically eat them straight up, and I frequently do!

But tonight, I thought it would be good to feature them in a salad, and it so happened that I had mint in the garden and greek yogurt and homemade harrisa in the fridge. Once I got to chopping and slicing, it didn't take long to realize that I was onto something inspired, something I know will be making regular appearances in our kitchen. The following description is more of a guide since I didn't really measure anything, but hopefully you'll get the picture, and feel free to improvise as you see fit!

First, peel (or don't, if you don't feel inspired to do so) enough fresh baby carrots so you have about a small handful for each person at the table. Then chop them into bite sized pieces and drizzle a little olive oil over them, and sprinkle with salt.

For each serving, you'll want to plop a small dollop of yogurt into a bowl, and stir into that yogurt about a teaspoon or so of harissa. Stir it up and then stir it into the carrots. Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice into it and give it another stir. Thinly slice about 2-3 mint sprigs per serving, and stir those into the salad. If you feel like it, top it with a little crushed red pepper. Dig in and crunch away.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Happiness is a Roasted Beet

The month of April has flown by with all kinds of birthday festivities, all of which included amazing eating, some of it local and some of it in faraway places. And I've been reminded once again that sometimes, the best meal of the vacation is the one you make on the night you get back. And the night after that, even.

Most recently, we just got back from the Oregon coast and it was wondrous, gorgeous, perfect in every way. We ate the freshest seafood every single day, usually several times a day. But after a few days, I was sick to death of eating out. It wasn't as if we didn't have a kitchen in which to cook, it's just that we weren't as prepared as we'd like to be, so we went with the flow and ate out in some really good restaurants. But still, by the end of the trip, as much as I was loving the fish and the beer and the wine, damn if I wasn't dreaming of vegetables.

And so after a twelve hour day yesterday that included ten hours of driving, we couldn't help but stop at the market on the way home and pick up some fresh spinach and feta to make what ended up being the most delicious spinach salad ever. And tonight's dinner included another spinach salad but this time topped with roasted beets, courtesy of our dear friend Lucio who'd left them here in our fridge. I was so struck by the color of the beets after roasting, I had to share.

Oh, but there is so much more to catch up on! And catch up, we will, but for now, I'm headed to sleep with visions of beets and broccoli dancing in my head. More to come just as soon as I'm able to catch my breath!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Best Friends Forever!

Is there no end to my obsession with writing songs about dogs? I never even knew I had that obsession until I started this project!

Today's song was inspired by the true love story of Tara and Bella - an elephant and a dog. Do yourself a favor and watch this little clip; it'll warm the bitterest of hearts!

Upon learning about these two magnificent creatures and their sweetest, most wonderful friendship, I got in touch with my inner Madonna and wrote this little bit:

<a href="">Tara and Bella by Val Esway</a>

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Couple More

The birthday week fun has begun! I was too busy being showered with flowers and wine and sushi yesterday to post a song. I know... my life is VERY HARD!

So today I'll post two. Actually one is a song and one is a very goofy spoken word piece. You may not like it, but I bet your dog would, if only (s)he could speak English!

Just a reminder that if you want to read the lyrics or find out more about the writing of the song, click on the song title.

<a href="">Failure Notification by Val Esway</a>

<a href="">If Dogs Ruled the World by Val Esway</a>

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Andiron Seaside Inn

A day sure can make a difference.

We woke up Saturday morning and packed an overnight bag, piled the dogs into the wagon, and headed to Mendocino to stay overnight at the Andiron Seaside Inn. Highly recommended if you find yourself traveling up that way! In fact, even if you didn't think you'd be finding yourself up that way, do yourself a favor and plan a trip!

The owners, Scott and Madeline are two of the kindest people you could ever meet. I'd met them years ago when I was a bartender at Lanesplitter. Not only were they two of my favorite customers, but they are also responsible for making the Lanesplitter Action Figures, including mine! They bought this place a year or two ago and have renovated it in the coolest vintage style, with each room unique. Our room was furnished with vintage barber chairs and art-deco lighting. We really appreciated the extra friendly touches, like dog towels and biscuits for Spider & Bloom!

(The reason you see only one biscuit there is because Bloom devoured his immediately, before I could get a photo. That blur of grey you see in the bottom right hand corner is Spider's snout, attempting to make her way directly so that she could devour hers too!)

And if that wasn't nice enough, we were also greeted with a little something to help me kick off my birthday week!

The Andiron was such a sweet and cozy place that we almost didn't want to leave it! But we had to get out and take in some of that gorgeous coastline. And so after Happy Hour at the Andiron, we managed to get to the bar at the Little River Inn just in time to enjoy a delicious dinner and a fine sunset.

As if all of this wasn't enough, we also managed to pack in some thrift shopping and several brewery visits. How can you see the largest pepper grinder you've ever seen in your life, for only one mere dollar, and NOT buy it?? After all, we do love black pepper around here. A lot!

By the time we arrived home on Sunday evening, I felt rested, refreshed and renewed, and very thankful for all of it!

But now, now it's Monday, and if it seemed like I was getting a little too perky and optimistic, here's a little something for balance. It's called (A by no means complete) List of Things that Could Go Wrong. A fitting song for a Monday. Enjoy!

<a href="">List of Things That Could Go Wrong by Val Esway</a>

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Song of the Day

Just back from a wonderful day and night in Mendocino. What a difference a day makes! More to come, including pics! But for now, I couldn't let the day get away without posting today's song. Just a reminder that you can click on the song title in order to find out more info. about the song, and to read the lyrics.

<a href="">Truth Teller by Val Esway</a>

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A Song and a Getaway

Yes, I'm liking this month a lot already!

Soon we'll be headed out the door to go and hang out here. It's probably going to rain all weekend but it will be beautiful nonetheless.

Before I go, here's a little something for you to listen to:

<a href="">Montecito Avenue by Val Esway</a>

Friday, April 02, 2010

Dog Love...

... is the song of the day. It's a good kind of love. I can't promise it's a good kind of song, but here it is, for better or for worse.

<a href="">Dog Love by Val Esway</a>

To learn more about the writing of the song, and to read the lyrics, click on the title of the song.

Thanks for listening!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears and I'll Sing You a Song...

... but I can't promise it'll be perfectly in key, as this month, it's all about demos!

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, then surely you've gathered a little about my recent creative frustrations. What follows is my attempt to break through that and hopefully move forward by spending a little time revisiting the past.

Welcome to A Song A Day in April, wherein I sift through and dust off old songs, new songs, and demos that have never seen the light of day (and perhaps, a few that never were *meant* to see the light of day!).

I'll mostly be posting previously unreleased demos, most of them largely unedited, many recorded moments after I wrote them, or even AS I was writing them, thanks to my participation in the Immersion Composition Society.

In some of my previous years of living, I've begun each year by writing one song each day for as long as I could manage to keep it going. But at this particular point in my life, I'm doing a lot of looking back.

April is the month of my birth, and possibly it’s purely coincidental that I'm turning 41 this month and so, perhaps, you could call this a part of my mid-life crisis, who knows? I've been feeling pretty creatively blocked over the last couple of years, and this project began in part because I was revisiting some of my orphaned songs in an attempt to get myself unstuck. In the process I realized that maybe I wasn’t stuck after all – maybe I was just working on finding my way.

Anyway, I discovered a few gems – and a few turds too – but mostly just had a great time revisiting the orphans! Some of them I may never want to revisit again, others may find their way into my live performances. For now, I'm just having fun digging through the old stuff, taking stock and working on finding a place from which to spring forward. I'm hoping that perhaps there are a few people out there who might appreciate this process and want to listen in.

Not sure where we're going to end up, but am looking forward to the journey, and would be delighted to have you riding shotgun with me.

And with that, here is today's song:

<a href="">Mid-life Crisis by Val Esway</a>

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hidden Treasures

Ah, Spring! It seems to have finally sprung.

Yesterday was the day I'd been waiting for since pretty much the beginning of winter. It was the day we'd finally clear out our jungle and prepare to turn it into a garden!

Of course, this would be no small task, and I've got the aching muscles today to prove it, even though the mister did a lot more of the heavy duty hard work than I did.

Little by little, we hacked at, whacked at, and ripped those stubborn weeds out of the ground. And somewhere underneath one of those sections of jungle, it was such a thrill to discover a little carrot patch that had just been sitting there for months and months, doing its own thing, minding its own business, not seeming to mind our months and months of neglect. Nature is pretty darn cool that way.

We didn't quite get to the actual planting of the garden yet, but that will happen soon. We still have to till the soil and get the plants. But for now, I'm quite pleased with the results of the day's work, and looking forward to enjoying the fruits (and vegetables!) of our labors!

It's nice, in so many ways, to have a clean slate from which to spring forward, and I sure am ready for it.

Monday, March 22, 2010


...that's how I felt on Sunday when I finally wrote a song that I didn't want to throw into the toilet. The irony is that I was on the verge of giving up. In fact, I had given up. I had spent a good many hours that day procrastinating. But I had also spent a good many hours that day attempting to work on one very specific concept for a song.

Over and over I strummed, I picked, I wrote, I re-wrote, I sang, I hummed, I hacked, I thrashed and I sighed heavily. Because no matter what I did or how I did it, I just wasn't feeling it. Not one tiny bit.

And finally, after many hours like this, I just said screw it, I'm done with this. And for some inexplicable reason I picked up the guitar and a bunch of words came to me...words about giving up and not giving a shit that you're giving up and not giving a shit whether anyone cares that you're giving up, and feeling somehow completely liberated, feeling like you're finally seeing the light that you couldn't see because you were too busy obsessing over sticking with the thing you were trying to do in the first place, the thing that wasn't working anyway. And a melody came along with it, and a little teeny hook, and about ten minutes later, there was a song. A song that I didn't feel the need to flush down the toilet. A song that I never planned for or expected to harvest from the depths of my admittedly neurotic soul.

And suddenly I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be, doing exactly what I needed to be doing, and it was such a wonderful, perfect feeling, the likes of which I haven't felt in far too long. I wanted to jump up and down, do a little jig, alert the media. Who knew that my creative block and complete and utter panic over it would be the very thing that would finally inspire me move through said block?

Is the song the best thing I've ever written? Probably not, not even by a long shot. But it showed me something that I needed to see, inspired me to feel something that I needed to feel. It reaffirmed my belief (the one that was starting to wane) that if I just show up and do the work, the music will eventually come, and for that, I am so grateful. Please feel free to remind me of that the next time I start whining and ranting, won't you?