Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Farmer's Daughter Hears a Thunderstorm

Heirloom pumpkin blossom after the rainstorm, Aug. 30, 2012.
I never think of myself as a farmer's daughter, although of course I am.  Both of my parents grew up on farms and their outlook on life is unmistakably rural.  I always thought I'd grown up to have a vastly different-- and decidedly urban-- outlook on life.  But I now realize that my parents' values have seeped into my consciousness far more than I realized, especially where the weather is concerned.

Last week we had a sudden and unexpected summer thunderstorm,  which is a highly unusual event in Los Angeles.  When I heard the unmistakable sound of rain pounding on concrete, I flung open the front door and watched the storm roll in.

After a few minutes, I tore myself away from the front porch long enough to grab a phone and call my husband, who was working 15 miles west of our house.  I knew I was interrupting his work day, but I was dying to know if the storm had hit his office first.  He seemed confused, but when he realized my call was the result of pure excitement, not desperation caused by imminent danger, he was amused.  I told him the rain was coming down so hard it was flowing over the sidewalks.  I knew it was time to hang up when he asked if I was loading animals onto the ark yet.  I was embarrassed.  And at that moment, I realized that my excitement about the summer storm was a bit unusual.

I forget that my family's obsession with the weather is a stereotypically "country" phenomenon.  It's been my experience that people raised in cities (especially Los Angeles) have little interest in the weather.  The weather is much more important to a farmer than it is to somebody who works in an office.  Of course, the weather impacts the lives of everyone on the planet to varying degrees, but when you watch your crops die as a result of drought or see your corn field flattened by a freak summer storm, the weather plays a primary role in your day to day life.  And once you have an understanding of the importance of the weather, that need to know about the weather never really goes away.

I used to laugh at my father for asking me about the weather each and every time he called me.  For the first ten years I lived in Southern California, I'd always tell him the same thing-- "It's eighty degrees and sunny, dad.  Just like it is every day."  Even if it wasn't.  But after a decade of living in Los Angeles, I learned to appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) changes in our weather.

On the morning of the storm, I sat glued to my television to hear the latest on the path of Tropical Storm Isaac, which had already driven many people from their homes and caused one flood-related death.  We have family in New Orleans, including an aunt who lost her home to Hurricane Katrina.  We all know it is a mistake to ignore the weather.  Of course, there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves from it. Weather will do what it will do.  For the most part, all we can do is sit and watch.  And hope for the best.

Half an hour after the storm ended, the sidewalks were dry, but I discovered two inches of water in the tiny wagon my daughter uses to collect weeds in our garden.  On the morning of the storm, this wagon was dry.  A few minutes later, it contained over two inches of water.  This might not seem like much, but it was a reminder of the surprising and powerful force that is our weather... and why we need to pay attention.

Friday, August 31, 2012

All Canning Jars Are Not Created Equal

My latest article for Zester Daily discusses the many differences between canning jars and how to match the food you want to preserve to the jar you should use.  Check out the article to see if you can spot the impostor canning jar in the photo lineup of various canning jars.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Watermelon Obsession

My latest article for Zester Daily is all about my family's generations-long obsession with watermelon.  I hope you're not missing out on one of summer's finest crops.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Peach jam and tomato preserves sitting on my kitchen table, July 31, 2012.
This morning I sat in the living room drinking my first cup of coffee and thinking about everything I needed to accomplish today.  Before I could finish my mental list, my husband came into the living room and reached for my hand.  Then he gently pulled me up from my chair and walked me to the kitchen without saying a word.  I was a little worried when he guided me to the kitchen table where the jam I'd made yesterday was still waiting to be put away.  After standing there silently for what seemed like an eternity, he said in a soft voice, "What's wrong with this picture?"  I replied, "Uh... I don't know."  Now I was really starting to get concerned.

My husband said, "Nothing's labeled.  I ate your delicious peach jam this morning, but I was hoping it was tomato preserves.  Could you please label the jars today?"

I wasn't sure if I should try to rein in my sense of relief or laugh out loud.  I'm pretty sure I laughed.  I know I couldn't stop smiling and it was my husband's turn to be concerned.  He gave me a funny look and said, "why are you smiling like that?"  I mumbled something about being happy he liked the jam and that I'd pick out a jar of tomato preserves for him to eat tomorrow.

It's hard to describe in words how satisfying it is to make food that has a strong effect someone I love.   I imagined my husband looking forward to eating tomato preserves-- and then his disappointment when the jar didn't contain the sweet and sour taste he was anticipating.  It's not that I enjoyed thinking about his disappointment, but it did show me how much he really did like the preserves I'd made him on a whim.  Somehow it made the moment even sweeter.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Southern Day in Southern California

Mortgage Lifters and other heirlooms ripen in the humid summer sun, 2012.
Today is one of those days that feels like home to me.  I'm from Virginia and in Virginia, summer means humidity.  It's pretty rare that we get a hot, humid day here in Southern California.  But this morning when the girls and I left the house, the three of us cut through the still, wet air and looked up to the sky-- each noticing the dramatic change in weather since we last stepped foot outside.  I smiled and told them that this was what summer in Virginia feels like.  We all took a moment to breathe in the liquid air and smell summer.

During my twenty years in Southern California, I've gotten used to our mediterranean climate.  I no longer flinch (much) when I feel my flesh burning within ten seconds of hitting the hot summer sun.  I wear sunglasses year-round and keep myself pretty covered up most of the time.  I'm not complaining.  Living in Southern California certainly has its advantages, like buying fresh fruits and vegetables year round and picking lemons off a backyard tree.  But somehow today, as I watered our garden and picked beans, basil, and tomatoes for dinner, I felt happy to be here.  And happy that I was able to give my girls a glimpse of-- no, a full-body immersion-- into a humid Southern summer.  (In a strange turn of events, Virginians have recently experienced the scorching hot temperatures that are our summer norm.)

One thing both places have in common is a good climate for growing tomatoes.  This morning picked all of our ripe tomatoes (mostly Mortgage Lifters) for a fresh tomato-corn soup we'll be having for dinner.  This soup says summer-- and home-- to me more than almost any food I can imagine.  But it is not my home in Virginia that I think of when I make this soup, it's the home I've created with my husband, daughters, and stepson here in California.

I made a version of this soup as part of the first meal I ever cooked for the man who would eventually become my husband.   There's no pressure like cooking for a date for the first time, but I planned that meal as I do many meals-- by wandering around the farmer's market.  It was early summer and I was excited to discover the first ripe tomatoes of the season.  I made this soup as an expression of my love of fresh food and new beginnings.  Unfortunately, I didn't know that my "date" hated soup.  It amuses me now to think of him lifting his spoon for the first bite of his most detested food-- except for ice cream, which I served for dessert.  But that's another story.  My husband swears I've converted him to a love of soup, at least this soup.  We eat it several times each summer and remember our first home-cooked meal together.  This soup now tastes like home to me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Truth About Turtles... And Baking Birthday Cakes

My first turtle cake, June 2012.
I recently admitted that I hate to bake.  But that didn't stop me from making a homemade turtle cake for my daughter's birthday.  Does it look professional?  Absolutely not.  Was it delicious?  Yes-- thanks to my mom who came up with the amazing icing recipes.  And my daughter loved it.  The best part was that I made it without much thought or worry (a work style that is completely uncharacteristic for me.)

My family doubted that I could do it-- with good reason-- so it was supremely satisfying to undertake the project casually at the last minute and boldly decide that I was going to make my daughter a turtle cake in a few hours, in spite of how crazy it seemed.  I took the photographs of the finished cake just as casually, which explains why they both look the way they do.  But in my mind they're both perfect.

About a week before my daughter's birthday, I asked her what kind of cake she'd like.  I didn't see much risk in this because she's always wanted some variation of a pink princess cake and I can make those in my sleep these days.  This year was different.  My daughter said she wanted a turtle cake.  I was stunned-- a turtle cake?  This came out of left field.  I asked her why.  She told me that it was because we were going to the aquarium for her birthday.  Duh.  We were indeed taking a family trip to the aquarium for my daughter's birthday.  It never occurred to me that the desire for theme parties started so young.  Or that turtles would ever trump princesses.  This was a coup.  A turtle cake she would get.

About the same time I asked my daughter about the cake, my extended family converged on our house for an amazing reunion/celebration of three family birthdays (in three different generations.)  Unfortunately, I was slightly overwhelmed with the process of entertaining and feeding ten people for ten days that I forgot to think about the turtle cake until a few days before my daughter's birthday.  Or perhaps I was just blocking the thought of it for fear that I'd actually have to do it eventually.  Three days before the birthday, my mother volunteered to bake the cake if I could tell her what shapes I needed for "project turtle cake".  I was suddenly faced with a crisis situation and everyone in my family knew I was in over my head.

My brother-in-law Mark immediately texted his mother-- the queen of kids' birthday cakes-- for advice.  The delightful and exceedingly talented Shirley Doogue sent photos of her own turtle cakes within the hour.  I started to sweat when I saw how great they were.  Listening to Mark's stories of how his mother started making birthday cakes weeks in advance of the birthday, storing pieces of the cake in the freezer as she worked.    My process would have to be different.

The bottom line was that I didn't have the time or energy to fret over this cake.  It just had to get done.  I studied the photos and websites that Shirley had sent and came up with a plan.  I asked my mom to bake two round 9-inch cakes, a 6-inch cake and a batch of cupcakes.  With this much cake, I figured I'd be able to come up with something that resembled a turtle.  The next day, my mom whipped up several batches of frosting.  I decided that my daughter's turtle cake would be iced in chocolate-- partly because this is her favorite icing and partly because the idea of using so much green food coloring to make a green turtle freaked me out a little.

I had about two hours to create a turtle cake from a table full of cake shapes and bowls of icing.  No pressure.  I took a deep breath and started.  Assembling the turtle body went pretty well.  I had an audience of four children as I started to work and I asked for their advice as I went along.  Early in the process it became clear that my oldest nephew Sean and I were on the same wavelength.  Should the turtle have a curved tail?  Yes.  Should the turtle have a long neck?  Yes.  Sean drew me a picture of what he thought a turtle head and neck should look like.  The other three kids (including the birthday girl) lost interest pretty quickly, but Sean watched for most of the process and I soon gained confidence in my work thanks to my partner in crime.  Sean seemed to think I could do it and he agreed with the choices I was making.  It's surprising how much confidence a supportive 12 year old boy can inspire simply by being interested.  We were off and running.

My mother hasn't understood many of my life choices over the years, but she does whatever she can to help me do whatever it is I think I want to do.  On this day, I wanted frosting-- lots of frosting.  My mother silently produced endless batches of frosting-- both chocolate and vanilla-- and I used it all.

After adding several layers of chocolate icing and some black icing for details like eyes and toenails, it became clear that my turtle cake wasn't quite girly enough, so I added green frosting highlights on the shell.  I started with vanilla frosting that my mom made from an old Brethern recipe.  It took a while to transform the vanilla frosting into a bright shade of green (and a surprising amount of green gel food coloring), but it eventually worked.

Near the end of production, when it was clear that this project was going to be a success, some of the men decided to brave the kitchen and check out the cake.  My father even suggested adding a tongue and asked if I had any licorice.  Nope.  But I had gummy fruit.  A red strawberry gummy makes a pretty decent turtle tongue if pressed flat.

By the time the party started, the cake was ready to go.  I'd never make it on a cake-baking competition show, but that wasn't the point.  Or was it?  My sister said my cake might not look as realistic or professional as Shirley's cakes, but that it was great that we'd all been able to share the experience.  My family had all pitched in to help me make my daughter's birthday fun-- each contributing some special skill of our own to the process.  We all had a good time making the cake and we showed the kids that if you work together, surprisingly good things can happen.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Say It With Cake: Happy Fourth of July!

Ruth's version of Ina Garten's Flag Cake, July 4, 2012.
My friend Ruth has inspired me to start a new column... "Say It With Cake".  Ruth made this cake using Ina Garten's recipe for Flag Cake, which is beautiful and delicious.  Thanks, Ruth for the inspiration and the good eats!