Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanks for a Grand Thanksgiving

What is this? A ham for Thanksgiving?

Yes, Joma is a ham any time there is a camera in the room. Very proud of her first year as Bread Shredder. While she tore bread up for stuffing, I made some pie shells in the oven, getting ready for Legendary Pumpkin Pie.  And I didn't do much else all day, except for one thing, which I'll speak of in a bit.

In an unusual fit of preparedness, on Wednesday I made the celery-and-onion seasoning for the stuffing, and with a little extra time on my hands, stewed giblets for broth as well. Thus on Thanksgiving morning, pie shells were all I had to do.

Alex and Lil tackled the turkey; we always remove the legs and wings and cook them in foil separately so they don't dry out. The turkey is stuffed and trussed up -- looks kind of odd, but it works.

I think this is really the first year that Lil had a chance to handle the turkey. I KNOW it was the first time I let her handle the Victorinox chef's knife she used to cut the wings away. My job was to "supervise" -- that is, to pace back and forth between the kitchen to sweat about people cutting themselves and the living room to swear at stupid calls in football games and ask John about rules that made me swear in confusion.

When it was the opportune time for the pumpkin pie, I walked away, and found something else to do, finally leaving Alex and Lil to the family tradition. They did a fine job of it, too.

What remained of my required attention was the turkey gravy. Bernie had two cups of his excellent homemade chicken broth in the fridge, so I combined that with my giblet juice, added a bit of salt and some thyme, and reduced the broth by about half before adding it to the drippings in the turkey roaster. A slurry of cornstarch and water, and the gravy was done. It was The Best Gravy I've ever made.

Bernie took a swing at a new dish, too: in addition to his cranberry sauce, he made a similar side dish with pomegranates. WONDERFUL!

With peace and family, and great food, it was a delightful Thanksgiving celebration. I'm thankful that we're a family together, and will add in an extra thanks for the continuing blessing of my gravy by Fr. Schmalhofer.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Natural Bridges State Park -- and Monarch Butterflies!

"Want to make a day trip with us?" I asked our grand-daughter Lillian. "I promise not to nearly die."

With no ill will towards me after my debilitating encounter with noxious chemicals on our previous road trip, Lil enthusiastically agreed to make it a day of wonder and go to Santa Cruz, to Natural Bridges State Park for a visit with hundreds upon hundreds of monarch butterflies.

There are a few spots on the West Coast where the butterflies congregate, and a big colony in Mexico. These are the fourth generation of the year, and they live six to eight months -- enough time to travel to the communal hibernation grounds, winter over, and then head out in the spring to produce Generation One. One, Two, and Three spread east and north, mating and laying eggs on milkweed plants, living only about two to six weeks. Then back Generation Four comes.

We got to Natural Bridges at a perfect time of the morning on a perfect day. Usually when we've gone to Santa Cruz, it's fogged in and chilly. This day was clear and warm, and at 10 am, the butterflies in the eucalyptus grove were just being touched by the sunlight, making them flutter and then take off looking for breakfast.

Some of the butterflies at the top of the trees got warmed up enough to take off, but in the chill morning air, fell out of the sky. This one on the right landed on the observation deck and sat there in a chilly stupor until the ambient air temperature rose.

It was astounding to be able to get practically nose to nose with the beautiful creature; when can you get close to a butterfly in your garden? Not very often -- I've tried.

The observation deck is at the bottom of a gully, with ramps leading down to it from the parking lot and park offices. The gully has a grove of eucalyptus trees and thick vining vegetation on all of its sides. Visitors standing or sitting on the observation deck were quiet, in awe, looking up at the clusters of monarch clinging to the branches, the warmer ones sailing about in every square yard above.  There was a sense of holiness to the place, a sense of being part of something so large and mysterious that there were no ready words to describe it, as though even trying to put a description to the heart's feeling would be wrong.

They're hard to get on camera up there in the trees, though, especially if you've got a relatively feeble camera. A LOT of the visitors I saw had lenses on their cameras nearly as huge as the ones you see on the sidelines at NFL football games, the lucky hounds. (I would envy them, but I doubt that I have the arm strength to hold anything that size steady.)

This cluster was just starting to have the sun illuminate it, and so the monarchs on the sun side (to the left) were beginning to spread their wings to the heat.

Bernie and I have been to Santa Cruz to visit with the monarchs quite a few times in the past; often enough to shout at the butterflies headed west across our property, "See you in November!" I don't know if Lil was impressed enough to want to do it again next year or not. She seemed to really enjoy the trip, but the sun was so scrumptious that she wished she had been prepared to wade in the ocean, prompting her to rant about preparedness for adventure.

 What's so amazing is the number of butterflies. The photo to the right looks like a tree with dead leaves thickening it. But they aren't leaves, you're just seeing the underside of the wings of thousands of monarchs. Down in the gully, there's not enough light to see the color, and by the time the sun brightens up that brilliant orange, the monarchs are ready to flutter away.

Sadly, there's a big decline in monarch populations, largely due to farmers' indiscriminate use of herbicides. Milkweed, which is the food for monarch caterpillars, is a weed. It grew in the fields and forests of Pennsylvania, where I grew up. (Which had to be one looooong trip for the poor monarchs headed back to Mexico in the fall.) But it's also due to people with good intentions planting prettily-colored tropical milkweed, which harbors a caterpillar parasite that damages the insect. (Back-east milkweed was just green, with insignificant whitish flowers.)

 But back to the visit. The sun rose, and the lovely lady spread her wings. "Recharging her solar power panels," a ranger told us. And indeed, she turned from facing into the sun to present her back and wings to the most light.

We know she's a lady monarch because the dark lines on her lower wings are thicker, and contain no black dots. Boys have dots, girls don't.

When we had hogged all the time we could on the observation platform, we saw a herd of kindergarten children swarming with their teachers, on a field trip to introduce the little Santa Cruzians to their winter neighbors. It was time to take a gentle hike down the trails to the beach. ...And then backtrack, because recent rains had flooded the end of the trail. We made our way through the park to the sun-warmed rocks by the ocean, and spent another hour or so watching the waves and the seabirds. By then, it was lunchtime, and we had plans.

After a ten year absence, we were headed back to The Crow's Nest, a restaurant on Santa Cruz Harbor. We loved it ten years ago (has it really been that long since we were there?) and it did not disappoint us at all. The menu is a little different, but the interior was impeccable, the wine list lovely, and the food was good. I think if we mention that we'd be doing dinner there again, Lil would jump into the car and wait for us.

One last thing, let's be equal opportunity photographers, and get a boy monarch into the picture, with his dotted lower wings:

See? A tiny black dot on his much thinner black stripes. A fashion statement from the insect world.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Bake Red Potatoes? Yes, You Can

Some time ago I happened upon a site that promised a recipe for perfect baked potatoes. I tried the method, and by golly, they were perfect.

But having stumbled onto a really good price on red potatoes (ten pounds for $1.98? Now that's good) I wondered whether or not they'd be any good baked, as all the recipes I could find insisted on russet potatoes.

Really. All of them. If you "google" red potatoes baked, you get hundreds of recipes for cutting the red potatoes up and roasting them. "No, no, no," I said to the computer, "I don't want to cut the potatoes up, I want to bake them." The computer shrugged and yellow letters on a red screen said If you don't like my answers, then don't ask me.

If I tried baking red potatoes, and it didn't work, I'd just have to make them into country style hash browns. That means a win-win situation. And was it ever a win! The red baked potatoes had an almost creamy texture that won the family over into never using russets again if we can get red potatoes. And here's the method I use:

Red potatoes a little smaller than my fist. Honestly, no matter how good it tastes, a red potato that size is a goodly portion. You don't need to eat baked potatoes the size of footballs. Let's start again...

Red potatoes, scrubbed, with no sprouts. Dry them.
Use a little extra virgin olive oil and make their red skin shiny.
Sprinkle with kosher salt. (The flakes of kosher salt stick better.)
Bake on a cookie sheet in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees
For one hour.
Test with an instant-read meat thermometer -- 210 degrees means your potatoes are done.

Eat. Butter and sour cream or whatever you love on baked potatoes. Enjoy.

No, you don't have to cook them on a rack. No, you don't have to pierce them.

Red, not russet.


Monday, November 02, 2015

You Could Take a Bath in That

Having been promised a wet winter -- which California desperately needs -- Bernie and I embarked on some home improvements to prepare for rain. This morning we got to see our plans in action.

We love having a sliding glass door that leads from our bedroom to our brick patio, largely because we can leave it open and feel like we're camping out. However, when we left it open, the rain from the roof above splashed right down on the bricks outside the door and ... into the room. So we put up a gutter to re-direct the water -- right into a rain-barrel. Water conservation and home improvement in one!

At six-thirty this morning, the barrel was overflowing. Last night it was empty. An inch of rain can do that, I guess. Using the chain as a "downspout" was a total failure, though. We may need to re-think  that one.

We also put up a gutter over the garage door on the side of the house, which re-directs water from the roof that used to make a lake of the north side to a little waterfall out onto the driveway, where the slope sends the rain into the gutter. The Stanislaus River down at the end of the street can use the extra water.

Outside our kitchen, water used to collect on the patio there, too. In 1997 I dug a trench on the south side of the house to draw off that El Nino rainfall, but over the past 18 years much of it filled in, so it couldn't handle all the runoff.

This past summer Bernie dug a retention pond off the patio, which was darn hard work, but it worked. The geranium in the pot sunk in the pond won't mind the extra water too much, but we might have to relocate it before the next wave of rains roll through.

All in all, we're feeling quite festive about our first heavy rain of the winter, and hopeful that the winter will help with the drought.