..........a blog about food, travel, gardening, and living the good life in Arizona.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

G is for gardening

May Sarton said it best in this lovely quote: Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

I try to approach gardening with that same mindfulness and gratitude -- whispering thankful prayers for everything that is thriving. The difficulty lies in trying to maintain that righteous presence in the face of damaging insects, intense heat, dry winds, and hungry animals. All those good intentions and hopeful expectations are often dashed ever so quickly by any number of these setbacks. Still as a long-time gardener, I never give up. Every year brings that familiar stirring within to dig in the dirt, plant some seeds, and see what happens, odds be damned. Over the years, I’ve gardened in every home I’ve lived from my condo deck in Silicon Valley to a 5-acre country property in Nebraska.

The next 2 photos are of my gardens in Nebraska.

These next 2 are of my Tucson garden in 2005 (fully enclosed screened garden) and 2015 (entirely open raised bed) respectively.

Any discussion about gardening would not be complete without mentioning my Dad’s garden. My parents lived in Pennsylvania in the same house where I grew up. Our yard was big enough for a large garden but my Dad planted an even larger one on some land that a friend bequeathed to him. Not far from our house, it had no fence around it and no water source; it was just an empty lot of weeds and meadow grass. I don’t know how he watered it as I had moved to the west coast by then, but he managed to grow a variety of vegetables in spite of these handicaps. 

Rabbits loved his garden too but he didn’t mind. When they ravaged his lettuce, he would respond with, “Everything has to eat.” Here is a photo of my Dad in his garden. He has a certain je ne sais quoi, no? Grace for sure.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

F is for figs

I love figs, fresh with goat cheese or all by themselves. When we moved into our new/old house in May of this year, one of the first things I did was plant a black mission fig tree. It produced exactly 2 figs this season which I devoured right off the tree as soon as they were ripe. They were small but sweet and I imagined the bounty this tree could produce over the years and imagined baskets full that I would eat the same way hopefully having enough left over for making jam.

Figs are a gift from God I'm convinced. I've made fig jam from scratch using dried figs and eaten fig jam and preserves prepared by many purveyors. I never tire of it. One of the most special commercial prepared products I've come across is from Kozlowski Farms, Forestville, Ca, north of San Francisco. They call it, Fig & Muscat Wine Preserves. It is so excellent I can't imagine trying to duplicate it. I use it on pizza with goat cheese and spinach, on scones and on canapes. It's wonderful and I'm not even getting paid to promote it! Just saying. Check it out if you are intrigued. Bon appetit!

Monday, January 11, 2016

E is for epazote (eh-paw-ZOH-tay)

Epazote is native to Mexico and the tropical region of Central and South America, where it is commonly found wild. It is also widely naturalized throughout the world and the United States, especially California. In Mexican cooking, epazote is always added to the pot when cooking black beans for its natural carminative (gas-preventing) properties and because its potent aroma cuts the heavienss of the beans. Who knew!

When we started settling into our new home, I went in search of some cacti to add to our patio collection. An ad on Craigslist led me to a cacti sale in central Tucson held by a woman who had been growing cacti and succulents on her large residential property for several decades. There were so many varieties of cacti growing in the ground and in pots all over her property. I found several I wanted; one of them, a pine cone cactus had some other plant growing in the pot with it. The woman let me know it was epazote that had reseeded from her herb garden. It's especially good when cooked with black beans, she said. I had to have it; the cactus with the herb. So sweet.

All summer the herb grew effortlessly next to the cactus and now in January it's still doing fine after several prunings. I dried some of it, but most recipes call for fresh epazote and I can understand why. It's not unlike basil which is so much better fresh than dried so if you decide to use it, fresh is the way to go. Here is my black bean recipe with epazote:

Mexican Black Beans with Epazote (serves 2-3)

1/4 pound chopped fresh chorizo sausage
½ medium diced onion
1 diced carrot
1 diced celery stalk
2 garlic cloves chopped
1.5 tsp. ancho or New Mexico chile powder
1.5 tsp. ground cumin
1 large sprig fresh epazote chopped (or 1 tablespoons dried)
1 can black beans
1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped cilantro
In a large, heavy skillet, brown chorizo sausage. Remove the chorizo, leaving the fat in the pan. Add onion, carrots, celery stalks, garlic and epazote to the pan and cook over medium heat until the vegetables become soft.

Add the can of black beans and the cooked chorizo to the vegetables, along with ancho or New Mexico chile powder, ground cumin, and salt to taste.

Cook on medium low heat for 15-20 minutes adding chicken stock to keep the beans moist. When ready to serve, top with chopped cilantro. Will keep for a couple of days in frig.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

D is for desert

My home... specifically, the Sonoran Desert which covers over 100,000 square miles stretching from Arizona to Mexico and west to Baja California. Different areas of this desert can look desolate while others are lush with vegetation and mountains. I am most familiar with the Sonoran Desert here in Tucson with its towering saguaros, scrubby cholla and colorful prickly pear. The Catalina Mountain backdrop to the north of the city changes with the seasons; dry and rocky in the summer, then green and lush in the early fall to snow speckled in the winter. The desert really does have seasons. This is the view from my kitchen window... I never tire of it.

At all times of the year, the desert is full of life. Right now in early January, I have cultivated annuals, roses, and a flourishing vegetable garden. In February, the wildflowers will begin to bloom and from then on the many varieties of cacti and flowering shrubs will take their turns blooming throughout the warmer months of the year.

The desert is alive with wild animals too. In our little corner of the desert, we have coyote, raccoon, javelina, bobcats, and many varieties of birds, lizards and snakes. Our trail cam records some of them passing through our property at night -- rarely are the larger animals seen during daylight hours so we are delighted to be able to see their presence digitally.

There are many aspects of desert life to explore and appreciate. One I especially savor happens right after it rains when the creosote bush releases its unmistakable scent -- the smell of rain. A wonder to experience, it always reminds me of how blessed I am to live amidst the natural beauty of this desert I call home.

Friday, January 8, 2016

C is for cookbooks

Of which I have many. The count today is 444 which doesn't include pamphlets or food magazines. I've been collecting cookbooks since I can remember beginning with yard sale and church cookbooks when I was a teenager. My mother had a copy of Betty Crocker that I remember vividly; it must have been her go-to source for recipes because the pages were spotted and falling out from years of use.

My collection includes many newer titles but older ones too -- from Ottolenghi's Plenty to the 1944 edition of Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes by Elena Zelayeta and so many more in between. I could write pages about my favorites and the things I've learned from reading and experimenting with the recipes that intrigued me. These cookbooks are like old friends that I can check in with from time to time and be happily entertained.

I especially love cookbooks that are not just collections of recipes, but cookbooks that can be read like a good novel. Food writers like Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher have entertained me and taught me so much about cooking and eating well; to them I owe a debt of gratitude.

If I had to chose favorites, they would be the binders of recipes I've assembled over the years: collected from cookbooks, magazines, cooking classes and a few I developed myself. These are the tried and true recipes that I rely on time and again.

Until tomorrow... must go check on my bread dough.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

B is for behind

I'm so behind on my A-Z posts! I had planned to write everyday for 26 days but as with most things we plan, life takes a different course. Between entertaining friends and dealing with an unexpected root canal procedure, my days got away from me. I probably should have said I'd post once a week for 26 weeks! That would have been more realistic. Oh well, I'll continue to post as often as I can between life's twists and turns.

The root canal was a long uncomfortable process but I'm healing quickly with the help of antibiotics and a really good pain killer, I'm sure tomorrow will be better. C you then!

Friday, January 1, 2016

A is for activity

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a blog about an A-Z blogging challenge (http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com) that has been going on for a couple of years with bloggers all over the world. To accept the challenge you commit to posting something on your blog every day (except Sundays) for 26 days. You can follow the suggested theme or make up your own or just completely wing it with no theme at all. The challenge begins in April but I thought I’d get a head start trying out this idea on my own. Generally, I don’t post unless I have some motivation to share a specific topic or event. So, for me, the A-Z challenge is a writing prompter that requires my commitment and creativity for an entire month! I’m in. I’ll be following the “wing it” theme which seems the easiest way to start. So here’s my first post for the letter a for activity.

Activity in the plural defined my life in 2015. Between our relocation from Nebraska to Arizona that involved the downsizing of a good deal of our collective stuff to renovating our new old house in Tucson, nearly every day has been a flurry of activity. Most of it has been enjoyable especially the design decisions we made creating our new kitchen where most of our activity takes place (like how I used that word again?). We both love to cook and typically you can find one or the other of us (sometimes both) whipping something up in the kitchen. As I write, Jack is actively preparing a shrimp omelet for our lunch. :)

Since settling in Tucson most of our activity surrounds organizing our home and the remainder of our stuff that we didn’t sell or donate while in Nebraska. It’s hard to imagine after the massive garage sales we had in Nebraska that we’ve both made several trips to the Salvation Army with loads of items we can no longer justify keeping here in our new home. Since the move, so many things I thought I couldn’t live without were surrendered into cardboard boxes and hauled off to our local thrift store. The idea of downsizing stuff is a liberating activity to be sure though I have to admit I have purge regret about some items I parted with and remain conflicted about the righteousness of minimalism over clutter. Still debating that (may be a good topic for the letter m).

When it comes to “physical” activity, we’ve made a leap in that direction too by joining the local YMCA. It was Jack’s idea but I’m 100% actively onboard! Can’t wait to get back to a regular yoga practice and work on strength building. Enough activity already? Stay tuned for tomorrow and the letter b! Barcelona, blogging, bacon, butter, baking… so many to choose from!