Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Calendar: Two Thousand Ten: April

April's calendar photo is of tulips at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. I love the picture and knew I wanted it in the calendar; I assigned it to April because that is the month of my sister's birthday, and tulips are considered "her" flower in my family, since my mom's tulips seem to bloom right around Mary's birthday.

My mom and I went to the Isle of Skye at the midpoint of our trip to Scotland. Our itinerary was: Sunday-Tuesday morning: Edinburgh (point A on the map below); Tuesday, train to Inverness (point B/D), drive to the Isle of Skye (C). Wednesday, explore Skye; Thursday drive back to Inverness and stay there, Friday, train to Glasgow (E). Friday & Saturday we explored Glasgow, and on Sunday my mom left from Edinburgh. We were very busy!

Looking at the map, I'm impressed at how much ground we covered. We had reservations for much of the trip, but not for Skye. Thanks to my friend Joe, I had a cell phone with me, so was able to make calls to a few lodging places on Skye from the train from Edinburgh. We settled on a hotel in the harbor town of Portree, and arrived in gloomy weather with lovely light.
Much of Portree is above the harbor itself, and our hotel was down a the water level. We had a hard time finding the sharp turnoff for the road that led down the hill to the waterfront! The harbor of Portree is featured in many photographs of Skye, because the town itself is the main town on the island, and there is a lovely row of brightly-painted houses down at the harbor level; our hotel is in the photo below, the white building diagonally across from/to the right of the row of colorful buildings.
We had dinner one night in the building in the middle (yellow on top, dark blue on the bottom). I believe I had fish & chips, but I know I had a traditional Scottish dessert called Cranachan at the end of the meal. It's basically whisky-infused whipped cream with raspberries and toasted oats. Yum!

The rest of the time on Skye we spent driving about to Dunvegan Castle and the Talisker Distillery - though it poured on us while we were at the Castle, it did clear in the late afternoon:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Be it Resolved that April is Cookbook Exploitation Month

Like so many of us, I have a lot of cookbooks. I do try to weed them occasionally (when I worked in a public library, I was the type of librarian who loved getting rid of unused books), but I just counted and I have over thirty, plus an accordian file full of both tried and untried recipes collected over the years.

I recently came across this Casual Kitchen blog post, declaring that April is Cookbook Exploitation Month. The idea: pick an underused cookbook from your collection, and vow to cook at least once from it each week in April.

Well, my vote is in, and I will be using Cooking Light Annual Recipes - 2006 edition. I spent some time flipping through it, and I like that it is rich in indexes! Aside from the usual alphabetical index, there's also a menu index which seems to reflect regular features in the print magazine, such as Simple Suppers, Casual Entertaining, Vegetarian, and Global Kitchen. Another index lists the recipes by title, and yet another groups the recipes as they appeared in each month's issue, organized by the article or feature that they appeared in. I think that may wind up being especially helpful for me when I want to cook seasonally.

So far my complaints are two: lack of photos (though there are some, and at any rate should be expected in an annual compilation!) and that there is not a good way to find all the vegetarian offerings, which are what I would use for lunch group. Still, I've already bookmarked a couple of recipes, and am bound to find more! I will probably start with Polenta with Spinach, Black Beans, and Goat Cheese. Hmm, or maybe I'll do Orecchiette and Arugula with Creamy Ricotta Sauce. OR Pasta Risotto with Fennel?

So many ideas!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Quick Trip: California Poppy Reserve

Last week I flew to Southern California and went on a short road trip with my mom and one of her friends. We drove from Claremont, to the California Poppy Reserve, to Tehachapi.

This year has been an El Nino winter, with extra rain, so we hoped to catch some of the desert blooming. We did okay, but I think the trip is worth doing again in a few years (assuming there's rain) to see if we can do even better! Still, we saw lots of flowers, part of the country I'd never seen, and had a good time.

Joshua trees are WAY strange-looking. Not at all what I imagined. This one is starting to bloom - see that white on one of the topmost .. um.. branch-things? Here's a close up of another tree's bloom:

Note those spiny thorns at the end of each .. leaf-thing. I got a picture of The Traveling Dude, who did not seem to mind the spikes:

And yes: flowers!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

So very very wrong

As the saying goes: If this is wrong, I don't want to be right.

In my case, at the moment, my oh-so-wrong addiction is to asparagus. I tend to have seasonal devotion to foods (winter being Brussels sprouts & sweet potatoes, roasted together), and this spring I've been bitten harder than ever before by the Asparagus Bug.

I keep it pretty easy, too: toss the asparagus in olive oil, sprinkle with salt & pepper, roast at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Lately I've taken to making a meal of it by adding egg. A couple of times I've soft-boiled an egg or two, peeled the egg, then sliced it onto the asparagus.

Today, I learned how to poach eggs! My motivation was an article reporting that the majority of people surveyed (I can't find the article right now so don't know if it was Americans or Britons) couldn't poach an egg. That bugged me - if someone asked me I'd have to admit that I couldn't, though I was perfectly confident that I could follow directions to do so!

It's crazy-easy:
combine water, 1 tsp salt, 2 Tbsp vinegar in a shallow saute pan or skillet:

Bring to a boil; slip the eggs in gently (the directions recommend using some sort of dish or cup to get the egg to the water without splashing it in).

Put a lid on the pan, remove it from the burner, wait 4 minutes or so, and voila! Poached eggs! I cooked min for 4 1/2 minutes and next time will try 5. Otherwise, I was quite happy with them.

To serve: remove them from the water with a slotted spoon, let them drain in the spoon a minute, and then place on the plate. I flipped them over as the bottom was a bit more presentable.

As a bonus, I had an "oh yeah I live in California" moment when I pulled a lemon from the tree out back to use as a garnish. Yum!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Photo Lottery

I learned about this blog-meme from Shopaholly:

1. Open the first (oldest) photo folder in your computer library
2. Scroll to the 10th photo
3. Post the photo and the story behind it

Right now I only have access to my Flickr photo stream, which I started in the summer of 2006, just before I moved from Oregon to California. Here is the photo that was the tenth one added to my photostream:

I was driving from Portland to Richland, Washington, to visit my old boss before I moved away (which sounds odd, but seemed like the thing to do at the time - she was super awesome, and it was a good excuse to see a different part of the region before I left). The country is gorgeous, and I drove along the mighty Columbia River for much of it.

It was a four-hour drive, which drives home how freaking huge this country is:
It also makes me realize what an upgrade it was to go from that old camera to my newer one!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Update on the garden project

I successfully germinated some tomato seeds:

and already have a brave sprout!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

exploring East Bay parks!

I have two friends in town:

They are currently napping on my couch after a busy day of sunshine and fresh air, exploring two of the many parks in the East Bay!

One had a labyrinth:

With treasures at its center:

The other was near the Port of Oakland:

Both had sunshine, fresh air, flowers, and not that many other people!


Edited to add: Go read Joe's account of our day! His includes a link to a zoomed-in Google map of the area, and a bit of information about the labyrinth, which was created in 1990.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

MORE Meyers

Oh dear. I have yet another mountain of Meyer lemons on my desk. I brought bags of dirt to a co-worker's (my building's garden project overbought.. complicated uninteresting story) and their trees are going gangbusters, so of course I had to help him out.

I'm having people over for dinner tonight. I'm going to wash the lemons and arrange them with some fresh rosemary in a vase as a centerpiece. But then what?

Last year I made:
- salt-cured lemons (which I only used once and eventually threw away)
- candied lemon peel (gave away a little, eventually threw out)
- simple syrup (eventually threw out.. terrible trend!)
- meringue cookies with lemon zest

This year I made the meringue cookies again. I've also made: 
- lemon curd (four cups of the YUMMIEST thing ever, but so unhealthy - I gave a lot away; next time I'll process the jars so I can save some for later) I think I used this recipe but boosted the volume a lot.
- lemon marmalade (total fail - it didn't set AT ALL but I don't blame the recipe)
- lemon/almond cake with blops of lemon curd baked on top - I can't find the digital recipe but it's printed out at home. If I figure out the url I'll add it here - it was GOOD.
- lemon cake pie

What next? Maybe another shot at marmalade (with a different recipe) or maybe lemon jelly based on this recipe for orange jelly. Or.. hooooooooooly smokes I just found a recipe for almond lemon curd!!! I bet that would be killer with hazelnuts and Meyer lemons. And I DO have some blueberries in the freezer; this lemon/blueberry cake might be good. Or, this lemon-souffle pudding looks amazing. And this page has about ten billion more recipes.

So basically, I've got options but no real ideas. Also, not a lot of free time in the next two weeks.

Edited to add: Triumph! I found the link for the Lemon Almond Torta I made that was soooooo good. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy spring!

It's been spring for a couple of months here in the Bay Area. I took these two pictures on February 7th (thank goodness for digital data):

And these pictures are from this weekend (March 14 to be precise):

(I've put these photos in at large sizes, so you'll see more if you click them.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

recipe review: David Lebovitz Banana and Chocolate upside-down cake

... or, thrilling potluckers since 2010! (and may I say, the leftovers are great the next morning with a big ol' mug of coffee.)

David Lebovitz's blog has consistently high-quality informative posts and recipes. He's an American who lives in Paris, and gives some hilarious insights into life there (here are several). I know that one of these days I will get to Paris, and I will certainly bring notes gleaned from his writing - he's got bunches of information compiled on his FAQ page.

But he's also a professional chef who used to work here in the Bay Area, and has published several books on the subject. I may stay to read about Paris, but I came to his blog for the recipes!

Last night I made David's Banana & Chocolate Upside-down Cake to bring to a potluck & game night. Oh, it was a hit! It was pretty easy to make, gorgeous in presentation, and came off without a hitch. I deviated from his directions only slightly: he called for an 8x8 cake pan, but I don't have one. I did a little research and some math, and figured out that my 9 1/2 -inch pie pan would work well - it has a slightly larger surface area, but approximately similar volume. Since my pan is glass, I put it in the oven to melt the topping ingredients. I think they probably didn't get as carmelized as they would have if made on the stovetop, but a glass pan on the burner will explode.

Follow the link above to his recipe (or go here), but here's the basic overview:
Put brown sugar & butter in the baking pan, and melt it (in the oven if using glass, on a burner if using metal).

Cut up some bananas (I used two) and arrange them oh-so-artfully into the melted goodness (after it's cooled a bit):

In separate bowls, combine dry and wet ingredients, then mix together. The batter includes a cup of banana puree (two more bananas), plain yogurt, and chocolate chips. How can you go wrong?

Pour the batter carefully into the pan. It's pretty thick batter, so it was fairly simple to transfer it to the pie plate without moving the rings of banana.

Bake it. Remove it.

Hold your breath and gaze anxiously at it while waiting for it to cool. After about 20 minutes (19 if you're impatient!), carefully slide a knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan. Invert onto a plate or serving dish - I used a 10-inch tart pan, so it was a little wider than the circumference of the pie - perfect for transporting in the car!

I confess, I danced with glee when this popped out so smoothly, looking so amazing!

I will absolutely make this again. I liked that it used so many bananas (four in all), and so little butter (since I was down to my last tablespoons - how shocking - and it only used four!). Perhaps for just a LITTLE more decadence, I'll serve it with whipped cream that's got a little rum or whiskey in it. Doesn't that sound amazing?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Disaster averted - rubbing alcohol meets hardwood floor

I live in a very lovely apartment which features hardwood floors. As floors go they're all right, but you can tell that they've had a pretty long life, with a number of layers of varnish thrown on top of the old ones. Still, when I moved in, the floor was shining and lovely.

It did NOT have an ugly white splash stain on it! Not until I so-carelessly knocked a bottle of rubbing alcohol over. When it first happened, I didn't know I was in trouble: I worried it might eat the varnish a bit, and quickly got some wet towels to rub it up. But when it dried.. oh, when it dried:

No matter how much I rubbed it with soap and water, it kept drying to that horrific tone. It FELT fine to the touch, but clearly the finish was damaged. I dug around on the internet for advice, but didn't get much. One post recommended buying some chemicals to strip the damaged area, and then refinish the floor. Another post recommended using powdered pumice & linseed oil to abrade it. I started thinking .. I didn't have those, but I DID have baking soda and mineral oil. I decided to make a paste and try it out, before starting to muss with chemicals:

It worked!!!! It took a few passes and some elbow grease, but the floor is SO much better. This picture doesn't show the final state - I went over it one more time. If you get your nose down to the floor you might see some faint white spots, but all in all, I'm really relieved.  

YAY baking soda & mineral oil!!!!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

for a wee little noggin

Oh, I'm a bad blogger. Hopefully if I have ANY friends reading, you've got  me on a feed. Otherwise.. eesh.

Anyway, remember that trip to Ireland & Scotland I've been nattering on about lately? The precipitating event was that some friends were getting married in Northern Ireland. Well, they got married on May 1st, and their daughter was born this February! They had a honeymoon that consisted of awesome travel from May until December, but I suspect I'll never hear more than the tip of that iceberg full of stories. Now they're living in Sydney, Australia, and are dipping their toes into parenthood.

Of course I think the first thing that you learn as a parent (this is an outsider's perspective, mind you) is that you are SO not in control. Case in point, their daughter arrived six weeks early. So, she's going to be fine but needs extra care and will be in the hospital for a while. And she's such a teeny thing! Once she was born I knitted & mailed a hat:

but once I saw the pictures of her teeniness, I whipped out another hat. Note to self: knitting hats for teeny noggins is FAST.

It's entirely possible that this will be too small for her, but I'm sure some other early arrival can put it to good warm use!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Calendar: Two Thousand Ten - March

I realized that my picture for March's calendar page was taken on the same day as February's. What can I say? It was a rather epic and picturesque day!

I've made a rough map to show where we were that day. Here's the big-picture map of Ireland, with the marker on the town called Liscannor, in County Clare.(you may have to click to see it clearly)
Ireland is not huge! We drove from Dublin to that marker in one day, which Google says is a four-hour drive.

Anyway, that day started at "our" cottage in Liscannor, County Clare. We drove about 45 minutes north and east to The Burren, as already described, then looped back along the coast to hit the town called Doolin for dinner. Doolin is famous for its traditional Irish music (called trad sessions, I think), but we only stuck around long enough to eat amazing food and walk down to the beach to walk in the windy spray.

Although the wind was fierce, we could tell it was spring - we were there in April - by looking at the little flowers gamely growing up around the rocks near the beach. This is my March calendar shot, and seems fitting for what can be a blustery time of year! (click the picture to see all of it)
Oh, and we totally squealed as we left Doolin to head back to Liscannor, and passed our first real castle!