Archives for category: philosophy

This September there have been a couple of sightings of my old vegetable garden in San Leandro. First I heard that butternut squash had taken over the entire yard. I asked about the beans, but my informant hadn’t seen any beans. Then I got an email from someone else, explaining that my garden had fed her all summer, that she had eaten green beans and tomatoes and butternut squash and given beans and squash away to neighbors of hers. I am happy that people were able to eat the produce I grew since I could not eat it myself. I still longed for some of those butternut squash and put in a call to my former landlord to ask if I could pick some squash (Johnny is away for the time being).

Poblano peppers.

Poblano peppers.

Meanwhile in my new container garden here in foggy Kensington one of the poblano pepper plants has finally fruited and a single principe borghese tomato is slowly turning red in the sunny days of September. The other tomato plants are full of pale pink and green Amish paste tomatoes and more borgheses and a mystery tomato from my sister-in-law’s Vallejo garden, currently a two-tone green job. Will the tomatoes ripen before the plants die? Before it rains? Will I bring the green tomatoes inside to ripen? Will I make a green tomato chutney? Stay tuned for the October tomato and pepper report.

The landlord called back. He said, “I know who planted that garden” and granted me access to pick produce there. When my friend M. and I drove out we found the wildest of gardens: all of the hard surfaces had been obscured by foliage. Squash vines snaked everywhere: from where I had planted them along the back fence line they had crossed the entire yard and begun to climb up the back stair. All paths and spaces between rows had vanished and I had to step carefully through unripe squash to remove ripe squash from the vines that also bore squash blossoms, tiny green squash and full-sized green squash.

Buried beneath green leaves ripe principe borghese tomatoes crept along the ground close to the house while ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes lurked in the understory and green ones grew through the side fence. Some of the weeds I had worked to eradicate found new openings where the green beans had been. I cut the three small heads of purple cabbage that I had planted in February, but left chard and kale growing by the back fence. I did not find any Amish paste tomatoes or basil or pepper plants in the tangle, but I could not reach large portions of the yard in the amount of time I had. I did find some dried bean and pea pods, picked what I could and shelled about half a cup of mixed black-eyed peas and pinto beans while I waited on the BART platform to go home. M. hauled most of the butternut squash we picked in the trunk of her car, but I carried a token specimen in my backpack. along with a Tupperware container of tomatoes and the shelling beans.

Butternut squash.

Butternut squash.

As I write this, I am roasting principe borghese tomatoes in the oven with olive oil and a little garden mint*. Pinto beans and black-eyed peas are soaking together in a big pot. Small slices of peeled butternut squash share the oven with the tomatoes. I propose to make a soup to honor my gardens, here and there, the honorable labor I did, the lovely San Leandro sun and fertile soil, the strong heirloom seeds that survived my inexpert care and the lack of rain,  the compost of coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags and the occasional chicken head. I will flavor the soup with chiles to honor the poblano plant and its late-borne fruit.

The local library has recently yielded up treasures, including The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart and The Heart of Zen: Enlightenment, Emotional Maturity, and What It Really Takes for Spiritual Liberation. I read them and write about them and work at becoming aware of my habits and my reactive emotional patterns, watering my life with sitting meditation and compassion meditation in the hope of bearing sweeter fruits from new seeds while extracting learning from the old bitter ones. I begin to advertise writing practice classes again — perhaps this time I will find more students. I continue to practice music and to busk in the BART station and Farmers’ Market, practicing gratitude and patience, saying with Leonard Cohen each day, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before The Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah.'” I wish you all a fine fall.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

Principe Borghese tomatoes.

* This is the first year I have raised this variety: they are very pretty, about the size of cherry peppers, but I don’t especially care for their flavor, either eaten raw or oven roasted — they are not sweet enough to suit me, but they are a drying tomato so I will dry some and report back about that next month. It may be that I just have not discovered their secret(s). I had wanted a paste tomato, a drying tomato and tomatoes to eat raw and chose accordingly from recommended heirlooms. Plus, I had to have the Sun Gold hybrid cherry, the most delicious tomato I have ever tasted (Those I grow every year).


California has a long growing season, so even in years when the crops are delayed, when fresh corn does not show up until after Fourth of July, when we are still pining for the first tomatoes, when we have a cold spring, we have certain foods longer than you have them in other parts of the country. Case in point: strawberries. In mid-October the strawberries from Lucero Farm are sweeter than they were in June and July. Go figure.

Original watercolor painting depicts biscuit-type strawberry shortcake.

Cowboy Strawberry Shortcake. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

I know many of you have moved onto apples, pumpkins and grapes for your desserts, but my friend Margit presented me with a basket of those strawberries this Saturday and we did not eat them immediately. In our refrigerator (which I have not yet discussed) there languished an unopened pound container of mascarpone cheese that Mom bought at Canned Foods Grocery Outlet and never used because she didn’t have any recipes containing it.

I hunted around through my saved blogs folder and found some lovely recipes, none of which called for more than a quarter cup of mascarpone. I eliminated other wonderful recipes requiring me to mix the mascarpone with whipping cream and line tins with ladyfingers (no tiramisu). I went to my favorite site of all things Italian, In the Bartolini Kitchens, and still found nothing I wanted to make tonight. I looked up a Joyce Goldstein recipe for a rum mascarpone mousse but could not find the lone packet of unflavored gelatin which I swear has been lurking in our kitchen for years.

Then I read somewhere about sweetened, whipped mascarpone. Aha! We would have strawberry shortcake again, this time with mascarpone rather than whipped cream. I would use the occasion to get out my sourdough starter and make biscuits for the shortcake base.

First I had to taste the mascarpone. Undeterred by the expiration date of August 2012 (our refrigerator is cold), I broke the plastic seal and dipped a teaspoon into the cheese. My tongue told me it was fine — it reminds me of the clotted cream they eat in England. I put it back in the refrigerator while I washed and hulled the strawberries, fed my starter some fresh flour and a little water to invigorate it, left it on the counter to get warm and put a steel bowl and beaters  in the fridge to chill.

At 5:00 I began to assemble the shortbread dough, aka sourdough “cowboy” biscuits with extra sugar. You can find a recipe for sourdough starter here. I keep a jar of starter in the back of the refrigerator and use it indiscriminately to make waffles, biscuits and, pizza and bread.

I have adapted the recipe for cowboy sourdough biscuits (which the authors call “Rocky Mountain Sourdough Biscuits,” but their story features a cowboy cook who bakes them) from The Book Lovers’ Cookbook.

Sourdough “Cowboy” Biscuits for Shortcake

Preheat oven to 425.

Whisk together:

1 cup unbleached flour*

1 Tbsp baking powder

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 Tbsp sugar

Cut in 1/4 cup unsalted butter or shortening.

Stir in 1 cup sourdough starter.

A soft dough should form. Gather dough together and knead lightly, adding more flour by the tablespoon if it is really sticky.

Lightly flour a bread board, marble slab or other work surface. Roll out dough to 1/2 inch thickness

Cut dough with biscuit cutter or the rim of a glass. I like to use two cutters, one medium-sized and one small to make top hats. Roll together scraps to form more biscuits, handling dough as little as possible. Repeat until all scraps have become biscuits or top hats, forming the last scraps into a hat with your hands if necessary.

Transfer biscuits to ungreased baking sheet.

Melt 1 Tbsp unsalted butter and brush biscuit tops with it. Sprinkle with sugar (raw sugar is good) as desired. Let biscuits rest for fifteen minutes before baking them for ten to twelve minutes.

Split biscuits and top with prepared berries. Dollop with whipped, sweetened mascarpone.

Oh, I didn’t tell you how to make that? I told you to chill the bowl and beaters. Then beat your mascarpone with some sugar (suggested ratio: 2 and 1/2 tablespoons of sugar to one pound mascarpone), and vanilla extract as desired. I plan to eat the leftover mascarpone on biscuits after the strawberries are gone, perhaps with a nice cup of tea in the afternoons, unless Mom gets to it first — she says she will use it in pastry of some kind: sounds like a win-win to me.

To continue with the theme, Work With What You’ve Got for October 2012 I thought I would inventory the pantry for ingredients, specifically two cupboards of the pantry: our cooler and the cabinet below it. A cooler, in case some of you don’t know, is a cabinet that shares an outside wall with the house in which some of the wall has been replaced with screens that let outside air into the cabinet. This means you can keep condiments such as oil, honey, peanut butter, mustard and ketchup in the cooler instead of storing them in your refrigerator. We also use our cooler to store unopened jars of pickles, jams, pumpkin, evaporated milk, salsa, as well as opened vinegars and salad dressings.

What I found:

1)  several jars of jam and jelly: black currant (3), tayberry(1), orange marmalade (1), apple jelly (3) ginger (1) sherry wine jelly (1)

2)  marinated artichokes and artichoke tapenade

3)  roasted red peppers (2)

4)  canned pumpkin (3)

5)  cashew butter, peanut butter and Nutella

6)  molasses, honey, lemon honey, dark and light Karo syrup, maple syrup

7)  Bakers’ unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, chocolate chips

8)  dill pickles (3), sweet gherkins (1), capers (6)

9)  canned chicken (2)

10) red lentils, lentil soup mix

11) tomato juice, diced tomatoes, roasted tomato salsa, Prego pasta sauce (4)

12) salad dressings (4), vinegars (black, plum, rice, blackberry balsamic, red wine)

13) peach chutney, Worchestershire sauce (3), mustard (4)

14) shitake mushrooms, teriyaki sauce, teriyaki noodle mix, tamari, hoisin sauce, sesame oil

15) instant coffee, liquid espresso concentrate

16) Kitchen Bouquet

17) Campbell’s Cream of Chicken (3) and Cream of Mushroom (2) soups

18) minced onions (dried).

19) maraschino cherries, glaceed cherries, sour cherries (2), dates, mincemeat

In the cupboard below the cooler we have

20) garlic (3 heads, plus), onions (6), red potatoes (lots)

What this list of ingredients suggests to me is glazed meats and glazed fruit tarts to use up all of the apple jellies , salad dressings (as marinades), marmalade and mustard. Also Chinese food ( tamari, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, black vinegar). We also have the makings for cherry and pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving here. I did not go through the cupboard where we keep pasta, rice and beans, the baking cabinet, or the jars on top of the fridge which hold rice, tea and dried chiles or the freezer, which holds fruit, meat, butter, cooked food.

Original watercolor painting shows four cooked dishes: cereal, soup, polenta and pie.

Four Dishes. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

What I actually ate yesterday is this: my new Work With What You’ve Got breakfast is a mixture of rye flakes, rolled oats and granola, cooked in milk with home-dried apples and commercial dried cranberries and pistachios. I still have a large jar of dried apples from windfall Gravensteins I foraged in Berkeley. We still have apples on our tree, too. The cranberries and pistachios came from Canned Foods Grocery Outlet two visits ago , as did the rye flakes. I made the granola some time ago. We are running low on rolled oats, which is why I went to rye with the last three-quarters cup of oats mixed in — the granola is oat-based, too, and cooks up well.

For lunch, I ate leftover chicken-vegetable soup that Mom made, with a whole wheat tortilla and a little bit of cheddar cheese, two cups of black tea with milk and the last homemade brownie (Mom baked while I was away for the weekend).

For dinner, I took the last of the Riverdog Farm beet greens and turnip greens that had been languishing in the fridge, trimmed them and chopped them and cooked them in polenta. I threw in the salty cotija cheese that my sister-in-law had brought us and added some pecorino Romano and a pinch of red pepper flakes — it was a good way to eat plenty of greens for dinner without feeling like I had to eat them plain. I’ll eat the rest of the green polenta for lunch or for dinner tonight since no one else cared for it.

Today I will be taking the last butternut squash from last year and turning it into butternut squash soup, roasting it in the oven while Mom makes lasagna. She said something about making a pie from the last of our current pie crust, too. Bryan only likes apple, pumpkin and coconut cream — maybe cherry — I’ll ask — maybe we can have a cherry pie (There are lots more cans of cherries in the garage).

Food notes: Breakfast cereal: most cereals can be cooked and will mix well — I’ve eaten combinations of wheat, oats, corn and rye as well as eating each one as a separate cereal. Cooking the cereal in milk adds protein for staying power and assures you of getting calcium in your diet for your bones. Cooking cereal with dried fruits adds sweetness without adding table sugar (unless you are using pre-sweetened dried cranberries!). Nuts also add protein and good fat.

Polenta: Polenta is versatile. You can eat it plain. You can stir cheese into it or tomatoes or peppers or greens or all four. You can eat it sliced and topped with marinara and cheese. You can eat it as a breakfast cereal with vanilla extract, milk and fresh or frozen fruit (see my polenta with peaches and Johnny’s polenta, a savory variation). Cornmeal or grits will do for polenta in a pinch — you’ll just get a slightly different texture.

What would you eat if you were eating out of your stored food right now? What have you got on hand?

Original painting of many-leaved tree with roots.

The Lovely Blog Award. 6″ x 6″ watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Last week Shira of In Pursuit of More tagged me in a relay, charging me with writing about hope and John Clinock of artratcafe generously bestowed on me the one lovely blog award. I am honored by the kind intentions of my fellow bloggers and will do my best to live up to their trust.

A major tenet of the two forms of Buddhism I have practiced is the practice of letting go, letting go of outcomes, letting go of expectations, letting go of desires. This does not immediately sound like fun, does it? That’s because we want what we want, even if wanting it is causing our suffering. I am personally undertaking a course of consciously letting go these days because I find myself falling in love. First I fell in love with a city, a country, a way of life, when I went to France. Then I fell in love with my guitar again, starting to play daily after a hiatus of a year.  I fell in love with my room, starting to see ways that it could be improved. Every summer I fall in love with open water swimming when the days get warm enough to swim at the cove down in the Berkeley Marina. And, as you might have expected, I am somewhere on the continuum of falling in love with another person with all of that continuum’s abundant symptoms: sleeplessness, excitement, fear of the unknown. There is pleasure in falling in love and there is pain. There is fantasy and reality, hope and dread. I find that the easiest approach, although it is hard to put into practice, is to treat the entire experience as a practice, to work with whatever it brings to me in any given moment: if I am sleepless, get up and read or write. If I am inspired to write a love song, write a love song. If I am scared, feel the fear.

One aspect of treating life as a continuous practice is that there is no room for hope. Hope causes us to leap into the future, into some better world that is different from what we are experiencing right here, right now. When I am right here, I can respond to my fear or excitement as it occurs; when I am jumping into hope, I lose my opportunity in the present moment. My teacher is fond of saying “The love you want is no other place.” And, I, of course, am hoping that she is wrong, that there will be glorious love in a field of flowers some other day. But I know what she means: our only chance is this moment, what we find there now, where we find ourselves now. We can’t count on having another moment, better or worse.

What we can count on is that things will change: if I am sleepless for three weeks running, during week four I will fall into a deep sleep when the body needs it. The foods of the changing seasons that I highlight on The Kale Chronicles reveal this in a beautiful way: now there are Gravenstein apples and gypsy peppers, summer squash and tomatoes, cucumbers, green figs, the first grapes, blackberries, melons. Soon eggplants will come in and peaches will begin to fade away until next summer brings the new crop. I stir a couple of spoonfuls of apple crisp into my morning oatmeal and plan another round of zucchini-feta pancakes for lunch, topped with Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. Next month, perhaps next week, I will be eating something different. Food becomes more satisfying when you are not reaching for raspberries in December and tomatoes in February, when you eat what there is now, choosing your favorites, perhaps, but working with what you’ve got.

Love cannot resist reaching into the future, imagining scenarios, conjuring kisses out of the air. So let it. Just know that the fantasies, the daydreaming are a current and temporary state: mine them for their images and ideas, laugh at them and at yourself, an ingenue in a fifty-four year-old body. Watch as your mind tosses up Loggins and Messina songs (Where did they come from?). Sing them if you want — no one needs to know.

What do I hope for? I hope for the courage to face my life, the courage to be in whatever state I find myself in until that state changes. I hope for the courage to respond authentically to whatever I need to respond to. Today I thank Shira (who is in La Belle France) for encouraging me to meditate on hope and John who says lovely things about The Kale Chronicles. With my one-year blogging anniversary coming up fast (next Sunday) I tell you that I had some hopes for the blog: I hoped a few people would like my recipes. I hoped my writing would acquire a wider platform. I hoped a few people would buy my paintings and maybe even my music CDs. I hoped that I would find some writing students who want to do writing practice. Some of that has happened. But writing The Kale Chronicles has become much bigger than that because I have discovered an entire community of like-minded souls, people who care passionately about what they eat and where it comes from, but, beyond that, care about how they live their lives, treating each other with kindness and humor. I started a blog and found myself in a whole new community. I am made welcome here as I am made welcome in my communities of writers and singers and artists. And I will be calling on you soon with a special anniversary challenge, The Lauren Project — I know you will step up to the plate. There will be prizes and glory and the opportunity to help a lovely young woman find more joy in the kitchen.

Original watercolor painting shows ingredients for cucumber raita.

Cucumber Raita. 6″ x 6″ watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

In the meantime — back to the present — a simple raita recipe for cucumber season, courtesy of Padma, my Indian roommate in college, who taught me how to make it. The secret to good raita is no shortcuts — you must cut the cucumber into spears and de-seed it with a knife and then you must slice each spear into small bits with the knife — if you grate it, the cucumber turns watery. Raita is all about texture. So set aside an hour to make raita — you won’t be sorry.

Cucumber Raita

Peel 2 cucumbers (or use an Armenian cucumber, which requires no peeling). Slice each cucumber lengthwise into quarters, sixths or eighths, depending on its circumference. Remove all of the seeds. Slice the now seedless cucumber into small pieces and put in a steel or Pyrex bowl. Grate 1/2 of a fresh coconut into cucumbers. Add one bunch chopped cilantro.

Heat a small amount of peanut oil in a small skillet. When oil shimmers, add 1 tsp of mustard seeds and 1 dry red chile. Fry for a few seconds until mustard seeds pop and add chile, mustard seeds and oil to cucumber mixture to season it. Add plain yogurt and salt to taste, making it as creamy or as light as you like.

Food notes: You can, of course, make this with dessicated coconut — it’s just not as good as when you use fresh. Make sure your coconut is unsweetened — sugar in raita is gross. You can eat the raita as a salad, as a side dish with an Indian meal, or simply mixed with rice.

One Lovely Blog Award: I’m supposed to give you seven random facts about me. Here goes:

1) I’ve written two new songs in the last week, “Ingenue” and “The Werewolf.”

2) I like to eat pie for breakfast, although I usually eat oatmeal or polenta cooked with milk and sweetened with seasonal fruit.

3) My favorite color is kelly green. I also like lavender and blue, crimson, claret, raspberry, all balanced with plenty of black.

4) I am a Pisces, Sagittarius rising, Gemini moon, Venus in Aquarius.

5) Although I am a folk musician and will always be one, I have always (always?) had a fantasy of singing with a rock band.

6) If I could only eat one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be Indian food.

7) This bull needs a big meadow: don’t put me in a pigeonhole — I won’t fit.

Now I need to pass the award to fifteen of you. In no particular order

1) Celi at The Kitchen’s Garden — Celi writes about sustainable farming, a subject dear to my heart. Beyond that she is fun and knows how to tell a story.

2) Shira at In Pursuit of More has endeared herself to me by her generosity and her commitment to simplicity.

3) The Caerus blog, a brand new blog, showcases the artful thoughts of Suzanne Edminster, Karina Nishi Marcus and a growing cadre of guest artists. Look for it on Thursday mornings and go back to read the back archives.

4) The Literary Jukebox. I found this one this morning. Maria Popova posts a literary quote and a song everyday. Great for literate music junkies.

5) Debra at Breathe Lighter. Debra shares all aspects of her life in San Gabriel — recipes, photographs, pet stories, field trips, music, all accompanied by her enthusiasm for life.

6) John at artratcafe provides an art education by featuring the work of many diverse artists. He writes poems, too. Foodies will like his brilliant posts on food that combine illustrations, literary quotes and recipes with a certain je ne sais quoi.

7) John at From the Bartolini Kitchens writes an ongoing love letter to his Italian family and the foods of his culture. Want to make cheese or fresh pasta? See John.

8) Eva Taylor of Kitchen Inspirations  knows how to put it all together: the dress, the shoes, the place settings. Lately she has been experimenting with healthier, lighter versions of favorite foods, keeping to a low-carb diet.

9) Betsy of Bits and Breadcrumbs cooks food I want to eat — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

10) My writing pal Bob Chrisman has branched out and now writes a memoir-type blog called swqm60. Check it out.

11) Jane Robinson at Art Epicurean posts abstract paintings and encouragement for creative types.

12) My old friend Maura writes theonceandfutureemptynest about her life with husband, children, grandchildren, parents, dogs, running shoes, kayaks and literary ambition. A graceful writer, her thoughts will resonate with the sandwich generation.

13) I’ve already sent you to look at Deby Dixon’s photos on Deby Dixon Photography.  Have another look, please.

14) Can’t leave out my pal, Movita Beaucoup! This chick is funny. And an incredible baker when she leaves off the Crisco frosting. And someday she is going to buy a painting (but you could beat her to it and buy up all of the best ones first. Just saying…)

15) Your nominee. Please use the comments to tell us all about the blogs you love the most, the ones you open first everyday, among other things. We have free speech here.

Original watercolor self-portrait with produce and guitar. Sharyn Dimmick.

Self Portrait with Wanting Mind. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and acquarelle.

Recently, I have been reintroduced to wanting mind. You know, the voice in your head that says life would be glorious if the day were sunnier, if there were more space in the freezer, if he would call. Wanting mind is a tremendous source of suffering because when you are listening to its siren song that something different would be better you can miss the opportunities that surround you right now, at this moment. Wanting mind likes to whine about the small thing that it has focused on like a high-powered laser directed at a spot of brain cancer, but whereas the laser may do you good, wanting mind will not.

It does no good to whine about what you don’t have or what you wish you had, dreaming up imaginary improvements to the present moment. You can put those on the page or the easel: often I paint things to look better than they actually do: my favorite is inventing backgrounds so that I don’t have to paint the same walls and windows over and over — I create wallpaper, wooden counters, checkered floors never seen in my actual house. It is alright to imagine improvements that you can create, but it is better if they don’t depend upon the actions of others or require removal of reality: thirty years of wishing I did not have cerebral palsy did nothing to remove it; accepting that I have it has been much more helpful.

What could I find to want in the middle of glorious summer? The farmers markets are overflowing with peaches, corn, tomatoes, ripe strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. My beloved Gravenstein apples will come in in two or three weeks says the apple man. Frog Hollow Farm had a sale on “cosmetically challenged peaches” Saturday, three dollars a pound for organic gold, and I took home a big sack. Fresh green figs came in the Riverdog Farm box, along with tiny green beans, cucumbers, lettuce, the first orange cherry tomatoes, fresh basil. For breakfast this morning I could have peaches, ollalieberries, blueberries or all three.

So what am I complaining about? I’m not complaining, I’m making a point: humans can always find a way to wish something was different, whether it is the weather, the menu, the president. Corporations make it their business to supply us with everything we want, things we don’t want and things we hadn’t even thought of wanting. Do you want tomatoes in December? Someone will ship them across the world for you. They won’t taste good. They will vaguely resemble tomatoes. And then you will think  what you need is fresh basil to go with them. But you don’t. What you need to do is wait for summer to taste the ripe, heirloom tomatoes on Deborah’s platter or pick them with Claire out of her allotment in England. Whenever summer comes where you live there will eventually be tomatoes and that is the time to eat them.

Seasonal eating is a voice speaking against the utterances of wanting mind. Seasonal eating tells you to go out and buy the peaches now because they will never get any better than on this July day in California. You eat them for breakfast with polenta cooked in milk and vanilla extract, sometimes a sprinkle of almonds. Seasonal eating says “Buy all of the ripe fruit you can eat — it’s better for you than other things, anyway.” The key is “ripe fruit,” whatever is coming off the trees and bushes in your neighborhood right now. If you are handy at preserving, you can buy extra and save some to freeze or can to tide you over in the winter months of potatoes, carrots, winter squashes and hardy greens. I always dry tomatoes. I never dry enough to last until the next tomato season, but I keep at it.

Two nights ago I took six bags of citrus peels from the freezer (We did need freezer room) and began the laborious process of scraping pith from them with a steak knife and a teaspoon. My hours of work will be rewarded with long-keeping candied peel from the lemons, oranges, limes and grapefruit we ate in the long winter months: the candied peel will enhance Christmas pfefferneusse, flavor muffins, serve as sweet snacks when this year’s peaches and berries are long-gone. This morning I took the thrice-boiled peels and scraped the white pith from them, watching the thin-bladed knife slide under the loose pith, left hand reaching into the pot for a new peel, right hand wielding the blade. And I realized I was out of time, that the only objects in the world were the citrus peels, the knife, the motion, the smell drifting up from the cutting board, that I no longer knowed or cared what time it was. This is the opposite of wanting mind and the cure: become absorbed in something simple.

The best way to make friends with seasonal eating is to visit farmers’ markets. Go every week for awhile to become familiar with what is in season now. Choose your foods and plan your menus around what is available. Or you can look for a CSA box, a community-supported agriculture program, that serves your area. For a flat fee, you get a box of fresh-picked produce each week, helping you to eat what is at its best now (My CSA also gives us some preserved things, precious bags of dried tomatoes and peaches during the winter or early spring).

Gardeners and farmers know that many things taste their best right out of the ground, warmed by the sun, eaten before the natural sugars can turn to starch. Nutritional studies now tell us that organically grown fresh-picked produce has more vitamins, minerals and micronutrients than produce that has been trucked across continents or oceans in refrigerated containers. Biting into just-picked local produce can even quell the wanting mind for a few minutes, stop it dead as it thinks instead “This is marvelous.” Unfortunately, its next thought will be, “How can I get more?”

Eating seasonally keeps me experiencing the pleasures that can be had on any given day. In the fall I might enjoy mushrooms. Every winter I make butternut squash soup with ginger. In the warm days of midsummer and early autumn I cannot eat enough Greek salads, enjoying the convergence of cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes. The first big treat of spring is strawberry shortcake. And we are all happier when we reach for the pleasures that we can have: when it is too cold to swim, light a fire and curl up with a book, bake some biscuits, make some gumbo, or get out a big pot and those citrus peels And when he is busy doing whatever he is doing it is a good time to pick up the guitar, the pen, the saucepan, the cookbook, the paintbrush — even the vacuum cleaner — and just do the next thing. He’ll call in his own time and the moment is about what to do when you feel that longing tugging at your sleeve.

Food Notes: As a bonus for soaking, scraping and boiling all of those peels, I got, besides the candied peel and the moments of peace, a lovely citrus-flavored simple syrup for cake, iced tea, baklava?

Painting Note: This week and last I have been participating in a new do-it-yourself artist residency, the Caerus Artist Residency, started by my friend Suzanne Edminster and her friend Karina Nishi Marcus. For a peek at my current sketchbook (including a slide show), please visit the Caerus blog.

Painting shows tea service on linen cloth in dining room.

Elegance. 6″ x 6″ Goauche and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

My friend Suzanne requested that I take on this topic, an essay on ease, elegance and economy. The story is that my mother was reading a book from the library, name and author now forgotten, on housekeeping (which activity Mom has never cared for) and the author stated that of the three desirable qualities, ease, elegance and economy, one could only have two of the three. The formula plays out something like this: if you are rich, with endless resources, you can buy elegance and ease. You can have servants to do all tasks you find unpleasant. You can buy the best of ingredients and have them served up on the finest china. You can even hire a chef or a cook to cook your meals for you: if you hire a good one, well-trained, with a fine palate and endless patience and high-dexterity, you can serve vol au vent and pastry swans filled with creme chantilly or whatever your elegant little heart desires.

If you are not rich, you may decide to go for economy and ease. That is the American way of processed foods, the middle aisles of the supermarket containing all of those frozen things in bags and boxes: prepared pies and lasagna and pizza. Coupons in every newspaper and online will help you cut your costs further. The same supermarket features paper plates, paper napkins and plastic cups, as well as disposable roasting pans — you can cook and serve your meals on things you throw away — how easy is that?

Painting shows convenience foods, microwave oven, disposable utensils.

Ease. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

If you get excited when you see a recipe for altering your store-purchased roast chicken or cake mix, this way is for you. To be fair, the entry of Trader Joe’s into wider markets has increased the quality and selection of many packaged foods, although many of these items are heavier on salt than they should be. An easy and economical dinner option would be to heat up some Tasty Bites with some rice, or pop open the Prego and make spaghetti, as we occasionally do on nights when no one wants to cook. We all have our favored shortcuts. Just be aware that consistently choosing economy and ease has a high cost to the planet and to your health. Celi of The Kitchens Garden once suggested visualizing everything you discard going into a heap in your yard because, in a big sense, it does.

Then there is the middle way, the one where you strive for elegance and economy. In the absence of servants and cooks, you become the servant and cook yourself. The way to produce elegance out of economy is to work and to learn. With the help of cookbooks and food shows and now cooking blogs you can teach yourself to make puff pastry, croissants, sourdough pain au levain. You can practice flipping crepes and making elegant, seasonal marmalades and jams. You can make your own pestos, rather than buying them. You can make your own pasta and cheese like John from the Bartolini Kitchens. You can raise your own chickens like Suzanne and Scott and run your own sustainable farm like John and Celi. There is no end to the elegance to which you can aspire if you are willing to put in the labor. With this option, you cannot fire the cook, you can only start over and attempt to do better. We have pretensions to elegance and economy around here: we have the economy down and we struggle with the elegance, sometimes gracefully, sometimes humorously. We have learned to know our limits: deep-fried dishes and crepes are beyond my reach, so I reserve those dishes for restaurant dining, currently a rare treat.

Painting shows basket of fresh produce.

Economy: Market Basket. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Many of you in the food blogosphere do better with elegant tables than I do. We do eat on china and use cloth napkins and I can manage a garnish on a good day, but I am generally more concerned with the taste and texture of the food than I am with the presentation. I do well on economy, although I could do better — I strive to use every bit of food that comes into our household: the Riverdog Farm chicory challenge is a good example of that and I have chronicled the ever-expanding list of things I make each citrus season. Using up all of that food is work and conversations around our house frequently begin with “We need to use up the sour milk” or “We need to think of something to do with the plum jam” or “What are we going to do with seven leeks?” The best starting point I can come from is that of love, when I want to make my own sourdough because I love it so much and can’t be down at the bakery everyday buying samples, when I have raspberries so special that I want to learn to make raspberry caramel to layer into a dessert. The combination of elegance and economy opens the door to challenge: can I make my own winter squash gnocchi? Will it be as good as what I have eaten in restaurants? It isn’t yet, but I have not given up trying.

I confess that I love to spend money on food and that I love to buy special, high-quality ingredients. When I walk through the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley I am often tempted to buy more than I can use easily, especially in the summer and early fall when the choices are so wide. If I had unlimited funds, I would buy more whipping cream, more organic milk and eggs and meat. I would experiment with coconut oil and almond flour and coconut sugar. I would buy raspberries every week during their season and eat them until I was sick of them. I would buy enough tomatoes in tomato season to have dried tomatoes for the other eight months of the year. With the economy I have been taught by my careful mother I scour the shelves at Grocery Outlet for true bargains: looking for great products at reduced prices is part of the work entailed in elegance and economy, as is limiting shopping to one trip a week and relying on creativity to devise appropriate substitutions and menu changes when we have run out of something.

This week I had the opportunity to visit what I affectionately call “the rotting rack” at Berkeley Bowl, the place where they put produce items reduced for quick sale. There I found several pounds of grapes for ninety-nine cents, organically grown fresh strawberries for the same price and a whole green papaya, which will soon become Thai green papaya salad (stay tuned). To find these items, I had to pick through many clam shells of moldy strawberries and under-ripe hothouse tomatoes. To turn these items into meals and snacks, I will have to contribute labor: my friend Elaine and I sat around last night removing the seeds from the grapes and arranging grape halves on the trays of my dehydrator where they became raisins overnight. I also had to sort and trim all of the strawberries to make sure no mold lurked about (There was none).

There are many paths through the maze of ease, elegance and economy. Eating things in their seasons is a good start. While seasonal delicacies such as lobster and raspberries may never become cheap, they are at their best and most plentiful in their time and when the supply goes up, the price goes down. Think of zucchini season when you have to do anything you can to refuse zucchini donations from overzealous gardeners. Good restaurants capitalize on seasonality, buying their produce from small farmers and varying their menus to serve the season’s treasures. Our local Chez Panisse built its reputation on foraging for the best ingredients each week and preparing them skillfully. Not everyone can eat at Chez Panisse, but we can do our best to shop locally, eat fresh food whenever possible and create our own experiences of elegance.

P.S. For the record: I will eat Prego marinara but I always make brownies from scratch.

In 1997 and 1998 I was sculpting large dolls — three feet high — out of porcelain clay and painting their heads, hands and feet. It was then that I acquired my painting palette, a cheap round plastic palette with a clear plastic top. This morning as I passed my desk I checked to see whether I had closed the palette properly and a large piece of brittle plastic broke off in my hand. I slapped some masking tape on the top and went on about my business, but the incident reminded me that I wanted to write about plastic.

painting shows grains, pulses and sauce stored in glass jars

Storage Jars. 6″ x 6″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Now, some of you will already be wondering why I didn’t immediately throw the broken plastic in the trash and go out and buy another palette, perhaps even a better one. The answer is two-fold: the lid that broke serves only the purpose of covering the paint so that it will stay moist and, with tape, still serves that purpose, but also plastic is problematic to dispose of properly and I feel it is best to limit plastic acquisitions whenever possible. The bottom of the palette where the paints sit is undamaged and I do not often have guests in my painting room, aka my bedroom. I also prefer to reserve what money I have for travel and other treats instead of using it to replace shabby possessions. If I did a self-portrait in the house jeans I am wearing right now it would tell you a lot about me: they have frayed hems and a side seam that is about to go on the inner thigh. I cannot remember when I bought them or at what thrift store but I can assure you that I have had them for more than five years.

Ahem. Why do I want to talk about plastic? Well, first of all, I read Beth Terry’s blog, My Plastic-Free Life, and follow her attempts to live free from plastic. She lives not far from me and does more than I will ever do to eradicate plastic from her life. I believe she is like a canary in a mine or a Cassandra we do not want to listen to as she chronicles the evils of plastic and its ubiquitousness. She goes to extremes that you might not want to go to — but you might: have a look at her blog and see what you think. She was talking about the amount of plastic packaging at Trader Joe’s the other day. Coincidentally, I had just stopped at Trader Joe’s for a couple of things (coconut milk, limes, dried apricots) and had had to make the unfortunate choice between limes coated with “edible wax” without packaging and organic limes in plastic netting. Which would you choose? Beth would tell me that the cans of coconut milk I bought are lined with plastic and frown that I would even consider buying apricots in a plastic bag. All I can say is that my Mom prefers apricots from Turkey to California-grown and Trader Joe’s meets her price point.

Painting shows refrigerator contents stored in paper, glass and china.

Refrigerator Storage. 6″ x 6″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

I believe that people want to do the right thing and that the right thing varies according to person and situation. I also believe that many of us are wanton in our use of plastic, that we use it unthinkingly and discard it unthinkingly. Many a young person has probably seen little at the store that is devoid of plastic packaging: it is in my lifetime that we got plastic tamper-proof seals on every bottle of pills, plastic film on cottage cheese and yogurt cartons, plastic bottles of soft drinks, plastic bottles of drinking water. It is in my lifetime that Quaker Oats went from selling rolled oats in a cardboard carton with a string you pulled to open it to the current carton topped with two plastic lids (one you remove to open it, the other reseals the carton). In my lifetime, the Ziploc bag went from something that did not exist to a required item at airports.

I am fortunate to have learned some of the old ways: my grandmother taught me to place a dampened tea towel over rising bread dough and my mother to store leftover pie crust in waxed paper. Plastic wrap often seals poorly anyway, so you will see me rubber-banding paper, wicker plates, cardboard or tea towels over the top of bowls to bring dishes to potlucks. You will see me washing plastic bags and drying them on the line so that we can continue to use them to store food. Like many of you I carry a backpack and canvas totes to pack my food at the grocery store and farmers’ market. I have a marked preference for buying food in glass, which I can re-use, and cans, which I can at least recycle. We use ancient Tupperware around the house, which seems to have the virtue of lasting forever with little degradation. We do our best to re-use those yogurt containers, bought mostly in quart-size, handy for storing soup or taking it on the road. And I carry a quart-sized water bottle with me, which I refill from taps and water fountains everywhere.

Painting shows bag of flour and steel bowl covered with striped dish towel.

Bread Rising. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

I reserve the worst of my spleen for single-use plastic: since I am not going to wash and re-use plastic wrap it is better not to use it in the first place if I can possibly avoid it. I can store food in cooking pots. I can cover a bowl with a plate or a clean cloth. Some foods, for example, cucumbers and mushrooms, keep better if they are not stored in plastic.

How many of you work to minimize the use of plastic in your kitchens? Please raise your hands and share your tips with me and with Beth. The world will thank you for it, although not the plastic-producing corporations.

Painting depicts food items procured in weekly grocery shopping

The Groceries. 12″ x 12″ gouache. Sharyn Dimmick.

Last week I checked Riverdog Farm’s weekly online newsletter to see what vegetables we were going to get: tangerines, navel oranges, spring onions, cauliflower, carrots, dandelions. Dandelions! Oh, they didn’t! I read on to see that what they were really giving us was young leaves of chicory. The only thing I know about chicory is that you can make coffee substitute from it or add it to coffee for that New Orleans flavor. I Googled it. The coffee substitute is made from chicory roots. Shucks.

My mind goes back to salads we ate in Italy where they dug every bitter shoot out of the ground and dressed it in olive oil. But before I start whining in earnest I realize that a limited palette of ingredients is a test of cooking skill and creativity and that with a cabinet full of spices and a refrigerator containing milk, butter and cheeses I have more to work with than many people have had. What needs adjusting beyond the seasonings is my attitude.

This week I sufficiently adjusted my attitude to cook the chicory. I tasted it raw the day I got it: bitter. Before I cooked it I checked to see what will be in Wednesday’s box. The contents are not much different. For twenty dollars a week I am getting three pounds of fruit (oranges and tangerines) and six pounds of vegetables, including leeks, arugula, spinach, cauliflower, carrots and potatoes. That is the basic early spring produce palette here in Northern California.

This morning I went with my mother on her weekly shopping foray. This week we went to Food Maxx for canned cat food for our three cats and coffee beans for Mom. While we were there, we picked up two boxes of rolled oats, a bag of raisin bran, four boxes of whole wheat rotini, a jar of molasses, a box of Mexican chocolate, a small jar of Prego and a number ten can of hominy for posole. The food for humans in that came to $26.28 and we got a dime back for bringing our own canvas bags. Total: $26.18

We went on to Canned Foods Grocery Outlet, variously known to our friends as “Half Foods” and “Groc. Out” (before you turn up your nose, let me remind you that it was there I first found a bottle of Mosaic blood orange olive oil). There we picked up our dairy products for the week: half and half, buttermilk, sour cream and cheeses: jalapeno cheddar, a two-pound block of mozzarella for pizza-making, and a jar of marinated feta. We added in meat protein with a package of turkey sausage and one of Canadian bacon. Mom scored a 2 lb. bag of organic frozen green beans for $3.00 and a big bag of  fresh red potatoes for $2.00. I treated myself to a three-pound bag of Bosc pears from Washington State for $1.50 because the annual citrus glut is getting to me again — I will use the pears in desserts and soups and eat them as snacks. We bought a couple of cans of diced tomatoes for our winter-spring pantry, some flaked coconut and maple syrup for baking, a large package of English muffins and two different brands of commercial ginger snaps. Total for Canned Foods food: 44.83.

Adding up the food we purchased this week from all sources, I get $91.01. We will not shop again until next week and with all of this in the house we may not buy much next week beyond bread, milk and more cat food.

Now, we never start from a house empty of food. We keep a running pantry of baking supplies from butter and eggs to flour and cornmeal. We usually have walnuts and almonds and some dried fruit: right now we have dried peaches and apricots, sour cherries, raisins and home-dried apples and pears. When I get around to it, we will have home-candied citrus peels as well. We also stock rice, both brown and white, polenta and pasta. We make our own chicken stock, which we store in the freezer, and keep condiments such as mustard and red wine vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. We try to replace all of these items during sales to keep our costs down.

The chicory? I cooked it for dinner, after trimming all of the stems. I pulled out all of the stops. First I boiled it for fifteen minutes. Then I poured off the water, hoping to have leached out some of the bitterness. I tasted it again: still bitter and not quite dull in color. I put in a little more water and cooked it for ten more minutes. Then I pulled out a skillet, heated some olive oil and sliced up half a sausage into half-coins. I browned those while I microwaved about a quarter cup of raisins in some water (This green is seriously bitter and needed the help from the dried grapes). I added the drained chicory and some pressed garlic, then the raisins and soaking water. Even with the raisins, oil, garlic, sausage and blanching the chicory remained bitter — not slightly bitter, but majorly bitter. It is the kind of thing that gives vegetables a bad name. We ate it alongside some bland Kabocha squash gnocchi in (not bland) gorgonzola sauce. My first attempt at winter squash gnocchi lacked lightness as I had to work in extra flour to handle the dough: if I revisit gnocchi more successfully I will post the recipe later. We were grateful to have the Mexican chocolate as an after dinner treat: I prepared that with a square of bittersweet chocolate, an extra tablespoon of cocoa powder and a dash of vanilla extract in each cup, perfect for the rainy March night.

P.S. Mom, trooper that she is, reheated and ate the remaining chicory for breakfast. She said it was better after sitting overnight. I said I would never complain about kale again, knowing we could get chicory instead. We both shuddered.

The Kale Chronicles’ Food Manifesto: Ideas I Try to Live By

painting of foods for four seasons

Seasonal Food 6″ x 6″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

1)   Eat fresh, locally-grown food in season.

Fresh food tastes good. It has more vitamins and minerals in it than preserved food. If you can grow your own food, go for it. If you can’t, seek out farmers’ markets or a community-supported agricultural program. Familiarize yourself with what grows in your area when.

2)   Adapt recipes to use local resources.

For instance, pesto recipes often call for pine nuts. Here in the Bay Area of Northern California, pine nuts are currently selling for thirty or forty dollars a pound. I make my pesto with walnuts, which grow in California and can be found at my local farmers’ market in bulk. If you live in an area that produces almonds, hazelnuts, black walnuts, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, substitute them for pine nuts. Eat pine nuts when you go to Italy or visit New Mexico.

3)   Use what you have on hand.

Instead of running out to get ingredients, practice cooking with what you have on hand. Develop a regular routine for food shopping and stick to it. You will save time and money if you are not always running to the store and you will develop your creative cooking muscles. Mom shops for groceries once a week at a variety of places (Safeway, Grocery Outlet, Food Maxx or Country Cheese). I pick up a box of vegetables in Berkeley on Wednesday afternoons and often go to the Saturday Farmers’ Market.

4)   Do not waste food.

We spend money for food and then we throw it away when it is less than perfect or past the pull date. Many people frequently throw away food that can be eaten. A routine throw-away is sour milk (or half and half, or cream), or, worse, milk that has just passed its pull date. Sour milk, cream, etc. can be substituted for buttermilk in recipes that involve cooking or baking. Sour milk can also be “sweetened” with baking soda and then used in cooked or baked recipes meant for fresh milk.

painting shows dehydrated and canned food for winter

Food for Winter 6″ x 6″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

5)   Find simple ways to preserve foods for winter.

I bought a dehydrator a year and a half ago. Now I make my own dried tomatoes which I use during the winter in soups, pastas and salads. I have also dried apples and pears and I’m just getting started. With trepidation I learned how to put up dilly beans, a baby step into home canning. When I make pestos or curry pastes, I put part of the yield in the freezer for later.

6)   Develop a personal pantry based on what you like to eat and ingredients you use frequently.

For example, I am a baker as well as a cook, so I stock a baking pantry with flours, sugars, molasses, honey, maple syrup, vegetable shortening, oils, nuts, coconut, dried fruit, yeast, and leavening agents. I cook Chinese food so I keep soy sauce, peanut oil and chili paste with garlic, fresh ginger. I cook Thai food so I keep fish sauce. A pantry rich in canned tuna and white beans would do me no good because I am not going to cook with those ingredients, or canola oil, which tastes like fish to me, but I do keep lots of pasta, polenta, rolled oats, dried tomatoes, kalamata olives.

7)   Stock your pantry when you find good deals on things you use often.

We are infamous for buying canned sour pie cherries by the case. We like cherry pie. Sour cherries make the best pies. Canned cherries keep. So when Grocery Outlet features canned cherries we buy a case at a time. We keep them in the garage. We have learned the hard way that inexpensive pie cherries are hard to find, so when we see them we buy them. We also stock up on sugar, flour, butter, pastas, and miscellaneous canned goods when they are on sale.

painting shows stock pot, skillet and ingredients.

Making Stock 6″ x 6″ gouache and watercolor pencil . Sharyn Dimmick.

8)   Learn to make stocks.

You don’t have to go to cooking school for this. You don’t have to roast bones (although roasted bone stock is supposed to be good). The Greens Cookbook has wonderful recipes for vegetable stocks, which I recommend. But any old person can plunk a chicken or turkey carcass into a pot of water with some vegetables or vegetable trimmings (the ends of carrots, tough ends of celery, celery leaves, cilantro roots and stems, the skin of roasted winter squash), simmer it, strain it, skim of the fat and, voila, a base for soups, sauces, chicken pot pie, Chinese stir fries. For me, chicken stock is indispensable. We keep it in pint containers in the freezer.

9   Develop your cooking resources.

I learned to cook by cooking with my mother and asking questions about what she did, but I also learned by tasting lots of foods, watching cooking shows on PBS, reading cookbooks and having conversations with others about food, especially people whose cooking I liked. We keep an old Betty Crocker picture cookbook as our cooking Bible. I have bought the cookbooks of several of my favorite restaurants: Ajanta, Henry Chung’s Hunan, Greens, and Chez Panisse (I really like the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook, which taught me how to make fruit caramel and variations on fruit curds and has a good section on seasonal fruit in California). I keep a large binder of recipes from the food sections of two newspapers, organized by main ingredient or type of food: Carrots, Chocolate, Cookies, Corn, Fennel, Fish, Lemons, Pancakes, Pasta, Peppers, Pumpkin, Soup, etc. I browse through it when I’m trying to remember what I cook with savoy cabbage or looking for that fabulous Polenta Pancakes recipe from Mark Bittman. I also search online when I need more ideas and subscribe to more than a couple of food blogs.

10) Don’t be afraid.

Remember, cooking is fun. It is a sensual experience standing in front of a cutting board with the smell of fresh basil wafting through the air, hearing the snap of green beans as you trim them, seeing the colors of eggplant, peppers and peaches sitting on the counter. If you are not sure how to do something, you can always consult a cookbook, watch a video online or call another cook on the phone. If you tackle a technique or dish you have never attempted you might want to follow instructions carefully the first time around, but once you learn some cooking principles and the rules of substitution you will be freer to cook what you have and turn it into what you like.