Archives for posts with tag: watercolor paintings
Original watercolor painting of tea service.

Rose Teapot. 5.75″ x 9″ Watercolor on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Recently I happened to read a recipe for sweet tea that raised my Irish hackles to a fare-thee-well. Those of you who know me well can raise your eyebrows and chuckle because you know what is coming. The rest of you might want to duck and cover for the duration of the tea rant unless you, too, are a fanatic about properly brewed tea. We’ll get to what that is in a moment.

What was it, you may ask, that occasioned this rant? On a perfectly lovely blog by a polite Canadian writer who makes beautiful cakes decorated with white roses, festoons her posts with poetry and takes professional photographs, I read a recipe for sweetened ice tea (aka “sweet tea”) that called for a pinch of baking soda. Baking soda! I started screaming. I even began my comment with Aieeee! Because, my friends, baking soda does not belong in iced tea: nothing belongs in iced tea but tea leaves steeped in boiling water (and then strained out), cold water and ice. Sugar is optional — I will get to that later.

Properly made tea is part of my cultural inheritance, the one thing that has survived generations in the United States (Well, we bake bread, too, so perhaps there are two things left). I have terrified my best friend by talking about the minimal requirements for a proper cup of tea, which are:

1) a tea kettle

2) a tea pot

3) boiling water — full, rolling boil, if you please, but started from cold water from the tap.

4) loose black tea leaves

and

5) a teaspoon with which to measure the tea leaves

This is how we begin. If you are not familiar with your tea pot (or have just acquired it to meet my requirements), measure cold tap water into your tea pot until it is nearly full, perhaps seven-eighths. Experienced tea drinkers may skip this step since you will already know how many proper cups of tea your teapot makes. Then pour the water, cupful by cupful into your cold tea kettle, counting as you go to see how many cups of tea your pot is meant to hold, allowing a little head room so that the brewed tea does not slop out of the spout when you lift the tea pot. Once you know how many cups of tea fit in your pot you can memorize the amount of water to put in your kettle. You need to add a little extra to allow for water loss from steam and to provide extra water for scalding the pot. If you don’t know what I am talking about, don’t worry: all will be revealed.

Put your cold kettle onto a hot burner at highest heat. While you wait for it to boil you may prepare a tea tray with a cup and saucer (extra points for fine china), or a mug if you must, along with anything you take in your tea. The classic accompaniments are lemon slices, a pitcher of milk, sugar lumps (kudos if you have sugar tongs), or loose sugar. Some people use honey and many people like to include an extra pitcher of hot water to dilute tea that gets too strong or warm up the pot — we will not be bothering with the water. If your tea tray is large enough and you are strong from consuming proper black tea all your life you may want to include acceptable tea snacks such as a plate of biscuits, scones, or buttered toast, crumpets or tea sandwiches.

Original pen, ink and acquarelle sketch shows glass teapot with peach and delphineums.

Glass teapot. 5″x 7″ Ink and acquarelle on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

When your kettle comes to a full rolling boil (large bubbles rolling across the surface of the water), you bring your tea pot alongside the kettle and pour a few inches of water into the pot. This is called “scalding the pot.” Cover the pot with its lid while you reach down the loose tea, properly stored in tin or glass canisters within easy reach. Before adding tea leaves to your tea pot, be sure to dump out the scalding water. In the interest of ecology I have been known to return this water to the kettle, but you can dump it into your dishpan or utility bowl if you’d rather, or pour it down the sink to clear the drain — don’t say I never give you any choices,  With your teaspoon, carefully measure one teaspoon of tea leaves for each cup of tea your tea pot holds. Some people add one additional teaspoon “for the pot.” We find that our tea is strong enough to walk on its own without this tradition. Pour boiling water over the tea leaves until the pot is nearly full and put the lid on pronto. Now you let it sit for awhile, otherwise known as steeping.

Now, what kind of tea should you use? I specified black tea because that is the tea I know best and it is actual tea made from tea plants. There are many kinds of black tea grown in different places in the world. There are pure teas of one type, such as “Ceylon” or “Assam” and there are tea blends, such as “English Breakfast” and “Irish Breakfast.” Assam happens to be my favorite. A certain species of mutants (surely it is part of their gene pool) like Earl Grey Tea. a black tea scented with oil of bergamot — to my ilk this tea tastes like tea cut with perfumed bath water, but I will not chastise them for their choice as long as they don’t serve it when I am coming over. There are other flavored black teas as well, featuring black currant or lemon. I say stick with the basics until you learn what you like: if you were born an American, you may never have had a proper cup of tea in your entire life.

If you have bought your tea leaves in a tin, the tin will likely include guidelines for how long to steep your tea. If you have bought it from a bulk bin or a jar at Country Cheese you will be on your own for the timing. We let our tea steep for about seven minutes before pouring the first cup. If it looks too light, we pour it back and let it steep some more.

Strictly speaking, what you are supposed to do is decant the steeped tea into another clean scalded pot once it reaches the intensity you want. Decanting your tea rids you of the leaves, making it impossible for your perfect tea to acquire bitterness from the sitting leaves. This is entirely proper, but we have a few lazy Philistine habits and one of them is not decanting our tea. During the steeping process, the tea leaves will sink to the bottom of the pot and during the sipping process any that got in there will sink to the bottom of your cup where you can avoid them or read your fortunes if you are good at that sort of thing. In any case, we generally drink our tea so fast and brew it so perfectly that it does not get bitter in the pot. All of us drink our tea with milk (never cream). My brother Bryan drinks his with milk and sugar. We put the tea in the cup before the additions so that we can check the tea’s color.

To make iced tea, all you do is make your largest pot of black tea as described above. After steeping, this time you decant it immediately into a serving pitcher and dilute it with cool water. If you are going to drink it immediately you will want to add ice — if not, it can now sit in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it — since you have decanted it, it cannot get bitter and you will not need to add any baking soda. Sheesh.

If you want sweet tea, I recommend making a pitcher of simple syrup. Take a saucepan and add equal amounts of sugar and water, 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water. Boil this, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Decant syrup into a nice pitcher and provide guests with spoons. Simple syrup combines with tea better than grainy, granulated sugar, which sinks to the bottom repeatedly, leaving your last swallow of tea much sweeter than your first. You will have to stir your tea a few times to diffuse the syrup evenly even so. Each guest can sweeten her tea to her liking and your mother can have hers unsweetened as she prefers.

Original watercolor painting shows long and short red dresses.

Red Dresses. 8 and 1/2″ by 12″. Watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

While you are practicing making proper tea or rejoicing in the fact that you already know how to make it, I will be putting on my red dress and my back-up singer hat to sing with Johnny Harper and the Hard Times Choir at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa. If you read this early enough in the morning, come on out and look for us at The Grand Coulee Stage at 12:50. We’ll be singing Woody Guthrie songs to celebrate his hundredth birthday.

Original watercolor painting shows bowl of fruit salsa and ingredients.

Peach-Plum-Corn Salsa. 6″ x 6″ watercolor pencil on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

I have my foot in several art camps: I hang out with writers at retreats. I meet regularly with groups of local folk musicians. And this past weekend I had the opportunity to attend to wrap-up party for the July 2012 Caerus Artist Residency in Sonoma County with my best friend (and Caerus co-founder) Suzanne Edminster.

I prepared a dish of fresh peach, plum and corn salsa, inspired by this recipe, and bought some blue and yellow gluten-free corn chips at the Santa Rosa Safeway. When I got to the party, the hostess gave me a bowl for the chips and I put my old, scarred Tupperware container on the table next to them. Other guests arrived, bringing fruit pies, buffalo wings, blackberry-apple crostata, pasta and green salads. The table held napkins, plastic forks and knives and paper plates.

I am used to folk music parties, which go something like this. Each person arrives and plunks something homemade or store-bought on a central table, greeting each other and often asking, “What did you bring?” Once people have dispensed with kitchen chores and stowed their instrument cases we take seats around the table and begin to chat and eat. It is only after we have served ourselves food and talked for awhile that someone will say, “Bill, do you have a song?” Or a late arrival will ask, “Have you been singing?” We say. “No, we’re still eating,” or “We haven’t sung a note.”

Musicians are always hungry. They congregate in kitchens where the acoustics are good, leaning against the counters. Opera singers cannot eat much before a performance, but feast afterwards — it doesn’t feel good to sing on an overly full stomach.  After a performance you are high on music, full of energy and ravenous.

Eventually at music parties everyone has had her fill and we start to sing, often taking turns going around the table. Some of us have tradtitional places or chairs we like to sit in. If it is big party, the tune-players will slip away to other rooms, leaving the singers to themselves. If it is a small gathering we will remain around the table all day.

The Caerus artists behaved differently. They sat their dishes on the table and started looking around. Some looked for places to display their art: an easel, a window seat, the edge of a wall. Most of them did not seem in a hurry to eat: they wanted to wander around and look at the art as though they were at an opening, carrying their small plates and congregating in groups of two or three. They ate alright, but they ate on the fly. My friend Suzanne says artists graze. I say that they are too busy to look around to eat seriously, but they will notice if the food is beautifully presented and admire serving dishes and particular utensils. These may be the people who say, “That looks too pretty to eat.” To a folk musician, there is no such thing as “Too pretty to eat” or “Too ugly to eat” either — if it is edible, someone will eat it.

At the Caerus party I parked myself in a chair next to the table (old habits die hard) and had conversations with whoever happened by. I stood out by not standing.

In case you are wondering what writers do at parties, in my experience they hug the table and yack: telling stories is the next best thing to writing them or reading them. And, in case you are waiting for a recipe, this is how I made the salsa.

Fresh Peach, Plum and Corn Salsa:

Chop 2 medium plums and 1 yellow peach into bite-sized pieces. Place in a medium-sized bowl.

Squeeze juice of 1 lime over the fruit.

Lightly steam two ears of corn and cut the corn from the cobs. Add corn to bowl.

Chop half a bunch of cilantro into mixture

Finely dice a small red onion. Add to bowl.

Cut 1 jalapeno pepper in half. Discard half of the ribs and seeds, reserving the other half. Mince the reserved ribs, seeds and jalapeno flesh. Mix thoroughly and allow several hours for the flavors to blend.

Food notes: I used Santa Rosa plums, a yellow peach and two ears of yellow corn, but you can use any plums, peaches or corn that you like. If jalapenos are too hot for you, discard all of the ribs and seeds before using and up the quantities of fruit and corn. If you freak out at cilantro or are allergic to it, substitute mint or fresh basil. And, of course, you can make it more acid by using more lime, more piquant with more onion. It would be delicious in a corn and cheese quesadilla or served alongside grilled chicken or fish. The original recipe calls for cumin, which I love — I just forgot to put it in this time.

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.

Yes, I am still here (I haven’t decamped for France again), but I thought you might enjoy a special tomato season treat, a guest post from my friend Deborah Sandler.

Deborah Sandler has enjoyed California’s bounty of fresh local food since arriving here in 1979, and swears never to live anywhere else because the food is so good.  She loves to cook and to feed people, and often tells her guests, “Nobody goes hungry at my house!” Deborah is a Farmer’s Market freak, often attending at least two a week, year round, rain or shine, on the lookout for whatever is in season and at its best.  Tomatoes are one of her favorite foods, and she shares one of her tomato recipes here.  When she isn’t cooking, she sings, and practices family law (while making sure to bring her office-mates lots of fresh food, because nobody goes hungry in her office either).

Original watercolor painting shows platter of tomatoes, olives, basil, feta cheese.

“My Somewhat Famous Tomato Platter.” (after Deborah Sandler). 8″ x 8″ Acquarelle on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Tomatoes are finally in season!  I yearn for them during the winter, and sometimes am seduced into buying hothouse tomatoes that look lovely but do not have the texture or zing of the real thing.  When you bite into a tomato that has been locally grown, recently picked, and never refrigerated, the flavor is huge and unmistakeable.  When I was growing up on the East Coast, tomatoes came wrapped in plastic, colored a sickly pink, four to a package, all exactly the same size and shape, firm and tasteless.  I lived in the suburbs, and didn’t know anyone who was growing tomatoes, so it was quite rare that I got to taste a real tomato.  That changed once I moved to California.  Many of the restaurants featured amazing tomatoes in their salads, and friends actually grew some in their yards.  I had no idea a tomato could look, smell or taste like this!  In recent years, heirloom tomatoes have appeared all over the place, stunning in their profusion of shapes, colors and flavors.  Their names are poetic and whimsical – here are just a few examples from one web site that sells seeds for them, and from my  local Farmer’s Markets:  Arkansas Traveler, Banana Legs, Bloody Butcher (ew!), Cherokee Purple, Black Russian, Dingwall Scotty, Green Zebra (and yes, these have stripes), Halfmoon China, Hank (hey, that’s my dog’s name!), Jersey Devil, Berkeley Tie-Die, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Mr. Stripey, Nebraska Wedding, Yellow Pear, and Stump of the World.

I live in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area, about 30-45 minutes inland from the ocean and from San Francisco.  For those not in California, that means that the climate here is far different from that in San Francisco.  Where the City might be 62 degrees and foggy on a summer afternoon, here it may be over 100 degrees and sunny.  We get some of the San Francisco fog, but not much.  The down side is that our winters are colder, foggier, and danker than those in San Francisco.  We are only an hour from the Central Valley, which runs down through the center of the state, and where much of the nation’s produce is grown.  Even closer is Brentwood, a major agricultural area just to the east of us, that features plenty of U-Pick farms and orchards, as well as farm stands.  Because our local weather is so warm, plenty of people around here grow their own produce, and some even sell at the local Farmer’s Markets.  Here is a partial but by no means exhaustive list of Farmer’s Markets within 15-30 minutes of my house:  Martinez Sunday morning (I think this is now year-round), Martinez Thursday mornings, Concord Tuesday afternoons (year round), Concord Thursday evenings, Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, Moraga, Danville, Orinda, Walnut Creek Saturdays at The Shadelands and Sundays on Locust Street (more on these below), Martinez at the Contra Costa County Regional Medical Center, Walnut Creek Kaiser, Concord High School, and the list goes on.

My favorites are the Walnut Creek Saturday morning market at The Shadelands, and the Walnut Creek Sunday morning market on Locust Street.  Both are very large, with over 40 vendors,  and both are year-round.  The Saturday market is only a few years old but already bustling with happy patrons.  The Sunday market has been there over 20 years, and most of that time I’ve been there.  The vendors there have watched my kids grow up, and know me well as one of their regulars.  At The Shadelands, my favorite tomato vendor is Swank Farms, which has several tables strewn with all sorts of heirloom tomatoes every week.  At the Sunday market, I like Roseland Farms, where the seller has numerous flat boxes of heirlooms sorted by color.  He also is one of the very few vendors that sells San Marzano tomatoes, one of the world’s best cooking tomatoes.  These last weeks sitting out on the table, cook into very flavorful sauces and soups, or can be sliced into salads as firm yet flavorful dependable little oblong beauties.  Roseland Farms also has a big pile of cherry tomatoes of all kinds, and you can grab them by the handful or pick them out one by one.  The Shadelands market had a map with push pins, showing the location of each vendor, and how far away their farm is from the market site.  The average distance they come is only 89 miles.  The average distance food travels to our supermarkets is 1,500 miles.  The map had a sign on it reading, “Choose the food less traveled!”

Here is one of my favorite things to do with tomatoes.  This is my somewhat famous tomato platter.  Amounts are approximate.  I made this up, and it doesn’t have official amounts of anything.  Mess around with this as much as you want, and change it to your taste. The secret is the freshness of the ingredients.  And do not ever refrigerate tomatoes – it destroys their flavor!  Slice several heirloom tomatoes (as many colors as possible) onto a large platter in several layers.  You can make patterns of color or just do it randomly.  Chop up a handful or two of feta cheese and sprinkle that over the tomatoes.  Then sprinkle a generous handful or two of olives over that.  Lately I use mixed Greek olives from Whole Foods, and I recommend you not use olives from a jar – get fresh ones from an olive bar if you can.  If you have fresh heirloom cherry tomatoes in several varieties, sprinkle a handful of those over the top. Then chop up a generous handful or two of fresh basil leaves and sprinkle that over the top and around the platter.  The vinaigrette I use is homemade, and is quite tart, so you may want to try it separately before using it here, to adjust for taste if you want. This reverses the usual proportions in a vinaigrette, and has 2 parts vinegar to 1 part oil.  1-1/2 T best quality olive oil, 3 T red or white wine vinegar, 10-15 shakes of salt, 10-15 grinds of fresh ground pepper or 3 or 4 shakes of coarse ground black pepper, 2 or 3 shakes of granulated garlic, 2 or 3 shakes of dried mustard. Mix thoroughly and pour over the tomato platter, serve immediately.

Original watercolor painting of Shakespeare and Company, a Paris Bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company (Upstairs). 5″ x 7″ Ink and Acquarelle on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Fourth of July has come and gone, but there will be many more grilling opportunities (I’ve heard some of you even grill in the snow — you know who you are). I spent the glorious Fourth where I usually do, at a backyard barbecue and singing party in Martinez, CA. My friends there have a small swimming pool, a gas grill and heaps of hospitality. Like-minded souls gather there year after year to play tunes on fiddle, guitar and concertina, to sing chorus songs and solos and, of course, to eat.

Every year I bring something different to grill. One year it was marinated steak. Another year it was my Mom’s traditional chicken recipe. Another time it was lamb shish kebab. One year I made homemade hamburger buns.

This year Mom happened to notice that Smart and Final had a Fourth of July special on pork ribs for $1.79 a pound. We went and looked at them. They were huge slabs of ribs, nine pounds or more. The butcher’s assistant mentioned that they also had baby back ribs, although they had none out. He encouraged us to shop for awhile and come back to get them. We strolled around the store, looking for inexpensive pumpkin (We found it in number ten cans) and molasses, which we bought by the gallon for $17.00. When we came back to the meat department the ribs were in the case: the only problem was that they were three times the price per pound of the regular spare ribs.

Original watercolor painting shows platter of barbecued spare ribs.

Spare Ribs. 8″ x 8″ ink, acquarelle and gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

We discussed this briefly and bought a nine-pound slab of regular ribs. Once home, Mom hacked it apart and stashed some in the freezer while I went to work mixing up my favorite dry rub, cadged from a Ray Lampe recipe in a newspaper article and modified to include fresh garlic, to skip the allspice and to eliminate horrendous amounts of salt (it is still plenty salty). While I mixed up my spices, salt and sugar, she put the ribs in a Dutch oven, covered them with water and simmered them on the stove. Since she forgot about them, they parboiled for two hours, but she says you can do it in forty-five minutes. The long cooking makes them exceptionally tender though and softens the bones themselves so that you can actually chew on them like little foxes if you are so inclined.

Dry Rub for Spare Ribs (which also works on chicken)

1/4 cup raw sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup paprika (I use some hot and some sweet)

1 Tbsp each black pepper, dried onions, cumin and chili powder

3 cloves minced or pressed garlic

1 tsp each dry mustard and coriander

1/2 tsp cayenne.

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Place spare ribs in shallow container. pat rub generously onto ribs, both sides. please. Let sit in refrigerator. Mine marinated for eight or nine hours before grilling, all told. Four is probably adequate. You will have more dry rub than you need, most likely. You can save it in a glass container for another use, or you can put a pot of pinto beans to soak and use the excess rub to season the beans after you cook them.

While the meat sits, absorbing flavor from the dry rub, you can make a simple barbecue sauce. This sauce is not especially sweet, not especially vinegary, not especially tomato-y, not particularly strong of molasses — it is a good middle-of-the-road sauce that seasons without calling attention to itself, infinitely modifiable to suit your tastes. It is based on a recipe from our beloved Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (They call it Texas Barbecue). While the original sauce calls for tomato juice, we started from a partial can of whole tomatoes that we had in the freezer and I used 1/4 tsp cayenne because we don’t have a 1/8 tsp measure and our cayenne is kind of old. I also used a bit of a “secret ingredient” — a few teaspoons of Prego left in the saucepan from a prior pasta meal. We nuked the tomatoes to defrost them and then did our best to squeeze the juice from them and break up the pulp, using a potato masher.

“Texas” Barbecue Sauce

Combine in saucepan:

A few tsp of Prego marinara (not essential)

1 cup juice squeezed from canned whole tomatoes

2 Tbsp brown sugar

1 Tbsp paprika

1 tsp dry mustard

1/4 tsp chili powder

1/4 tsp cayenne

2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup ketchup

1/2 cup water

Simmer on stove for 15 minutes until slightly thickened. Puree in blender to remove any hard bits of tomato pulp.

I grilled the ribs for about ten minutes a side at the party — just enough to develop a little color and grill flavor. I put the barbecue sauce on the table so that people could help themselves. Mom and I were eating leftover ribs two days later and she commented that they were flavorful with no sauce at all — that’s the dry rub.

The dinner table held tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole, fresh corn, platters of fresh tomatoes with basil, feta and olives, bowls of mixed berries and cherries, fruit crisp and three different potato salads. The chief discussion before the singing got going was about books and reading. Some of us still prefer to read paper books that we can hold in our hands, like those on the shelves at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, while others pointed out the convenience of storing large libraries on their Kindles while traveling. Someone mentioned the ecological cost of paper and I countered with the ecological cost of toxic e-waste. Paper can be made of hemp or bamboo: bamboo, in particular, is a fast-growing grass — making books does not have to involve cutting down trees, but making Kindles currently involves manufacturing plastics with their unknown additives (industry secrets) and incomplete disposal: most hard plastic just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces and presents a hazard for wildlife. Just saying. Everyone at the table still reads, which gives me hope for the future (but nobody’s children were there this year). At any rate, I hope you enjoy some time this summer with a good meal, friends and a good book. And if you get to Paris, have a look at the upper room at Shakespeare and Company, a reader’s and writer’s paradise.

Things to Eat Right Now ( at least if you live near me in Northern California):

Breakfast polenta with peaches

Zucchini-feta pancakes

Original ink and acquarelle sketch shows peach on plate with knife and fork.

Peach with Knife and Fork. 5″ x 7″ Ink and Acquarelle. Sharyn Dimmick. Detail of larger work.

Actually, I’m not going to talk about cake in this post, despite the title. I am going to talk about eating like a French person and how I lost weight and built muscle mass on a diet which included croissants, hot chocolate, espresso, wine and plenty of bread and cheese.

Some of you may remember when I came back from an earlier meditation retreat suggesting that you try to chew each bite thirty times to help you slow down and pay attention to the tastes and textures of what you were eating, to be present for your meal and to improve your digestion. Well, the French have another method for making meals slower and more enjoyable: some of it is in the meal service and much of it resides in the use of the knife and fork.

I am an American. I grew up in a culture where we eat with our fingers and turn even pieces of meat into unrecognizable finger foods (Chicken McNuggets, anyone?). Fourth of July aka Independence Day just passed: how many of you ate fried chicken, barbecued ribs, corn on the cob with your fingers? Raise those sticky hands and now wipe them on your napkins. But the list goes on. Who eats fruit by picking it up and taking a bite, perhaps over the sink, if it is juicy? How do you eat pizza, French fries, hamburgers?

Original watercolor painting shows old wooden door in stone wall, with green plant.

The Farm at Villefavard. 5″ x 7″ Acquarelle on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

At Villefavard, the first thing that appeared at dinner was a cold soup in a narrow glass (My favorite incorporated bacon, melon and cream). Sometimes there was a platter of prosciutto. Lunches began with plates of roasted vegetables, sliced tomatoes or salads and we had food shortages for a few days when the first twenty people through the line thought that that was all they were going to get and filled their plates while those of us further back in the line watched the last roasted peppers, the last tiny green beans, disappear, and saw that we would be eating shredded carrots again. We wrote notes to our teacher and to the administrative team, asking that people be more mindful and moderate in their consumption so that others could eat. I wrote notes.

The problem was a cultural one. Les Américains, not used to eating in courses, assumed that the first food out was all they were going to get and they needed to store up calories for the winter. Our hostess, Justine, spoke to us by the third night. She told us that the French eat in courses, that the chef would put out starters and salads and that later he would bring out the main course, then a cheese course and, finally, dessert. Natalie encouraged us all to try eating the French way — to serve ourselves limited amounts of the first course, go back to our tables, eat that, and then bring our plates back for meat or fish, paella or French lasagna. Meals began to look less like eminent food shortages once everyone realized that there would be more food, but there would not be more salad or crudites after the first service.

I conducted a further experiment beyond eating in courses: I decided that I would carve my food with my knife and fork the way the French did. This led to amusing incidents when we were served roast chicken and I was presented with a piece including a bit of breast, a leg portion and a wing. Only my kitchen skills at disjointing chickens saved me — I knew there was a joint and that I could cut through it to tease the bones apart. Even so, that meal took me a long time to eat, using a knife to remove meat from bones. Because the French method caused me to eat more slowly I had time to fully taste the food I loosed from the carcass and time to notice when I was full. As I cut pears and peaches with a knife and fork, cutting small pieces of goat cheese to eat in between slices of fruit, I remembered that my Irish grandmother always cut apples into slices for me and that apples tasted better that way (We ate the slices with our fingers though in my Grandmother’s kitchen).

St. Paul Pizza: tomatoes, mozzarella, oregano, chorizo, egg.

St. Paul Pizza. Photo by Sharyn Dimmick.

A week of eating this way was enough to convince me that it was beneficial. I still ate clafouti, cheese, fruit tart, but I no longer picked them up and absentmindedly stuffed them into my mouth. When I moved on to Paris the next week, I felt more comfortable with my knife skills and did not feel self-conscious eating pommes frites with a knife and fork. I ate pizza with a knife and fork in the Marais and I enjoyed it more than I would have had I picked it up. Many times, after making my way through an apertif and salad I had no room for further food. Other times I ate three courses and coffee. I did revert to outdoor picnics of bread, cheese, fruit and olives sans knife and fork, but only because airline regulations prohibit travel with a handy Swiss Army knife (I do not like to buy things I already own one of).

Eating French-style allowed me to eat a croissant and a hot chocolate for breakfast each morning. I stayed a few blocks away from the Eric Kayser bakery on the Rue de Bac. Each morning I put on my only pair of pretty shoes, walked to the boulangerie after it opened at seven, sat at a small square table facing a window and ordered my chocolate chaud and un croissant. Un croissant, not deux or trois. Eric Kayser’s croissants are light with an airy interior, stretched strands of yeast dough with the freshest, sweetest butter flavor. The crust shatters slightly, but does not produce a plate full of crumbs. The chocolate is rich and dark, served with optional sugar, which I never added or missed. I looked forward to my petite dejeuner and was sorry to leave Eric Kayser behind when I moved to the Bastille for my last two nights, but I found one other bakery with fabulous croissants by noticing a man carrying a small sack of bakery goods on a Sunday when many boulangeries are closed.

I came back from Paris trimmer and more fit, despite all of the wine, cheese and patisserie. Of course, I walked everywhere, often several hours a day, but that is another story.

P.S. Writing Practice Classes in the San Francisco Bay Area: I am contemplating teaching one of my rare writing practice classes this summer. If you would like to learn writing practice as developed by Natalie Goldberg (set forth in Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind and many other books), please contact me.

Warning: this post may contain an embedded rant or two.

In the kitchen this morning, I have two large dry crusts of French bread, three eggs and several heads of baby romaine lettuce from the farm box. This late spring day appears to be one of the warm variety. I don’t know if these ingredients suggest anything to you: to me they suggest Caesar Salad.

My mama told me that Caesar Salad contains anchovies in the dressing. Cursory internet research suggests that Cesare Cardini used Worchestershire sauce rather than anchovies. I don’t even like anchovies, but I was taught to chop them finely and put them in the dressing for a Caesar Salad, so I do. I would not eat them on pizza. I would not snack on them out of the tin. I have never dared to make a pasta puttanesca because of the anchovies in it, but I keep anchovies in a jar of olive oil just so that I can make this salad when the mood strikes or when the ingredients are sitting around in the kitchen.

Furthermore, I do not care for any egg preparation that involves soft egg yolks — or hard egg yolks, for that matter. That leaves out poached eggs, fried eggs, eggs sunny side up, deviled eggs, hard-boiled eggs and Easter eggs. But I make an exception for Caesar Salad dressing, which calls for a coddled egg, cooked for one minute before you mix it with the other dressing ingredients.

Painting shows Caesar Salad and ingredients.

Caesar Salad. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

The salad that makes me set aside my food aversions is truly magical. You put in anchovies and barely cooked egg yolk, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, black pepper. You toss the dressing with croutons, Romaine leaves and freshly grated Parmesan cheese and you have a crunchy, green refreshing salad with adequate protein from fish, egg and cheese. There is no need to add shrimp or grilled chicken to this salad as many American restaurants do.

First, make garlic-infused olive oil. Heat some garlic cloves in olive oil and allow the garlic and oil to sit while you do other things. While you are at it, halve a raw clove of garlic and rub it onto your wooden salad bowl. If you like raw garlic, set aside a couple of cloves to squeeze into the salad, or pound them in a mortar or mince them with a knife. I actually like minced or pressed raw garlic better than the more subtle garlic oil.

Then make croutons. Chop your leftover French bread into cubes. We like to use stale sourdough. You can saute them in a little of your garlic oil, or you can toss them with some of it and bake them in your oven for a few minutes at 300 degrees. I usually bake my croutons. Sometimes I just bake sourdough bread without any oil: the croutons will absorb dressing from the salad anyway.

Then wash your romaine lettuce and dry it thoroughly in a dish towel or a salad spinner.Tear into bite-sized pieces unless you particularly enjoy the exercise of cutting lettuce with your fork. Place lettuce in your garlic-rubbed salad bowl.

Take two or three anchovies from a tin and mince them finely — no one wants a big bite of anchovy in this salad — we just want the flavor. Set them aside for now.

Grate some Parmesan cheese. 1/4 cup will do in a pinch, but you might want to use more to get the snow drift effect.

Halve one lemon and get ready to squeeze it.

Dress your lettuce with a small amount of garlic olive oil. Add minced garlic if using.

Now coddle an egg: boil it for one minute only. Remove it from the pot. Crack it right into your salad bowl and toss with the lettuce.

Add the minced anchovies and toss again.

Squeeze lemon directly onto the salad. Toss again.

Add croutons and grated Parmesan. Toss again.

Grind some fresh black pepper over the salad. Toss again.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

Food notes: If you can’t stand handling anchovies, you could try using anchovy paste in a tube. I have never used it. Please do coddle the egg and use it in the dressing: the slightly-cooked egg, anchovies and lemon are what creates the distinctive Caesar dressing. You cannot get the proper effect without the egg. You cannot get the proper effect without some form of anchovies — if you are afraid of them, try using a little less — start with one anchovy if you are squeamish and work your way up. You cannot skip the cheese either, or the croutons — if you do, you have not made a Caesar salad, but some other kind of romaine salad. You cannot make a vegan Caesar — don’t even try. If you are a vegan, find some other way to eat your romaine. You cannot make a kale Caesar either: by definition, Caesar salad is made of romaine lettuce. Got it? You have latitude with the garlic, the oil, and the croutons and the amount of anchovy you use. For the Parmesan, you need to get the good stuff and grate it yourself: this is not the time to use stale, pre-grated cheese or the stuff in the green can: when you are only using a few ingredients, they need to be the freshest and finest you can get. That chicken and shrimp? Save them for another entree or cook and serve them on the side, please. Once you try the real Caesar salad, you will love it or hate it, but at least you will know what it is, that you have tried Caesar salad and not one of the many abominations that blacken and borrow its name.

If you’ve made it through the rant, you may notice that I put no salt in the dressing: both anchovies and cheese pack a lot of salt and I don’t miss it. But I did say you could adjust seasonings: that is code for add lemon, salt, pepper, garlic or cheese to taste. Enjoy. And if you experience any revelations after making proper Caesar salad, please come back to testify in the Comments section.

It is cherry season in California. For a few short weeks in May or June fresh cherries appear at the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley. First there are Brooks, then Burlats. Later there are Bing cherries. I eat them all. Mostly, I eat them fresh, for a snack. Lately I have been sneaking them into my morning cereal: my current favorite concoction involves 1/3 cup blue cornmeal cooked in 1 cup of milk with a bit of salt, a small handful of raw almonds pounded in a mortar, a handful of stoned cherries and a couple teaspoons of shredded coconut. This is also good with rolled oats — if you use oats, use 1/2 cup.

Do any of you have binders full of recipes that you have clipped from the food sections of local newspapers? Do you have a lot of recipes you haven’t actually cooked? Me, too. Sometimes I try one and toss it out with a “What were they thinking?” gesture. Sometimes I learn something. Sometimes I just store them, loosely organized by main ingredient, in a huge binder that takes two hands to lift off the shelf, but I know they are there waiting for “someday” when I’ll cook them.

Cherry Focaccia with Chocolate.

One such recipe was Ed Murrieta’s recipe for cherry focaccia. A Google search for the original publication date in the Contra Costa Times informed me that I have been saving this recipe since June 7, 2004. I saved it because it has an irresistible photo of a golden brown round focaccia, dimpled with cherries, cut into wedges, with a pile of fresh cherries in the center. It looks so pretty that I wanted to make it “someday.”

Well, folks, today was someday. I made a trip on the bus to the Farmers’ Market yesterday to buy more basil for more pesto and to buy cherries for this bread. Insert disclaimers here. One, I don’t generally like focaccia — it is too thick, too bland, with the wrong ratio of toppings to crust: I think of it as failed pizza. Two, I think chocolate-covered cherries are revolting. My Grandmother liked them: nasty, sickly cherries in too sweet milk chocolate. And cherry cordials, worse, if possible: bad chocolate filled with wet cherry filling that squirts you when you bite into it. Yuck. Three, my favorite cherry recipes involve sour cherries, either canned or dried, since fresh sour cherries are hard to come by in this part of the world. Four, I can’t stand anything cherry-flavored: cherry flavor reminds me of medicine. This includes cherry Starbursts (why, oh why?). The only exception I can think of is Royal Crown Sour Cherry candy — do they still make it anymore?

But this cherry focaccia was calling my name. First of all, it is a filled focaccia: you make two circles of dough. You put fresh, pitted cherries on top of the first circle, sprinkle it with chopped bittersweet chocolate, and put the second circle on top. Then you push more cherries into the top layer and sprinkle it with raw sugar before it goes into the oven. Plus, you need a starter to make this and I keep a jar of sourdough starter in my refrigerator at all times. I fed the starter yesterday and let it sit out on the counter while I went to the market and bought cherries.

I wanted to send you to Ed Murrieta for the original recipe, but when I Googled him the first thing I found was an article about how his entrepreneurial business had failed, leaving him to live on food stamps. Then I found some recipes including marijuana. Wherever he is now and whatever he is doing I wish him well and thank him for this gorgeous focaccia recipe. I could send you to the newspaper site, but they seem to want you to activate a free trial subscription to let you read the recipe. What can I do? I can rewrite the recipe — I did make a couple of changes.

Here’s the bad kitty confession. Murrieta’s recipe calls for bread flour. In my heyday when I had a regular job and regular paychecks I would have gone out and bought bread flour. I would have insisted on bread flour. Now I am not so proud or so picky: I use what we have on hand. I am an experienced baker and can handle sticky doughs and doughs behaving badly. So I will tell you that Ed Murrieta called for 2 and 3/4 cups of bread flour, plus additional flour on the board during the kneading and shaping phases. I winged it with unbleached flour and some whole wheat flour to give it a more rustic quality. I’ll show you.

Murrieta called for a starter made  of 1/2 tsp dry yeast, 2/3 cup of water and 1 cup of bread flour. You mix this up in a glass jar with a wooden spoon, cover it with cloth and let it ferment on the counter for at least twelve hours (and up to 36). I skipped this, and just added 2/3 cup of my sourdough starter to the dough. If you already have a starter, you are good to go. If you want an official sourdough starter recipe, go here.

Focaccia stuffed with fresh cherries and chocolate.

Cherry Focacccia. 8″ x 8″ gouache on paper. Sharyn DImmick.

Fresh Cherry Focaccia with Chocolate

Make the dough first. You can pit cherries and chop chocolate while the dough rises. You can even go to the store for cherries and chocolate while the dough rises if you don’t go on the once-every-forty-five-minutes bus.

Dissolve 1 and 1/2 tsp yeast in 1 cup warm water.

While the yeast proofs, stir together in a large bowl 2 and 3/4 cups bread flour, 3 Tbsp sugar and 1 tsp kosher salt. If you do not have bread flour and are intrepid, start with 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 3 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour (You will have to add more).

Make a well in the center of your dry ingredients. Add proofed yeast, 2/3 cup sourdough starter (or Ed’s starter, above), 1 cup lukewarm water and 3 Tbsp olive oil. Mix with wooden spoon until a light dough forms. If your dough is more of a batter than a dough, add flour 1/4 cup at a time.

Flour a bread board or other work surface and keep the flour handy! You might want to make sure your flour bin is at least half-full. Turn out the dough onto the board and attempt to knead it. If it sticks to the board badly, knead in more flour, dust more flour on the board, pry it up and try again. Eventually, you will work enough flour into the dough that it resembles roll dough and is smooth and uniform in appearance. If you are smart, you will oil the bowl before you put the dough back in it to rise. Cover the dough with a damp tea towel and let it rise until double — 1 and 1/2 to two hours.

Now, go away and amuse yourself or clean your counters and put away your ingredients except the flour — you are not done with that. Before the dough is risen you will need to pit 2 cups (one pound) of cherries and chop four ounces of chocolate. I used a 70% Lindt bar that had cherries and chili in it.

When your dough is risen, put it on your floured board and let it rest for five minutes. You can use this time to oil a pizza pan or baking sheet.

Divide dough into two equal portions. Ignore one while you flatten, dimple and pull the other into a ten inch circle. See pizza-pulling instructions here. (Murrieta rolls out his). Transfer first portion to oiled pan. Spread 3/4 of your cherries on it and top with chopped chocolate. Flatten, dimple and pull the second circle into shape and place it on top of cherry-chocolate filling. Pinch the edges to seal the dough. Then decorate the top with the rest of the cherries, pushing them cut-side down into the dough at attractive intervals. Let the dough rest for thirty minutes while you preheat your oven to 400 and do a round of clean-up. Just before you put the focaccia in the oven sprinkle it with raw sugar.

Close-up photo of Cherry Focaccia.

Cherry Focaccia Close-up. Photo by Sharyn Dimmick.

Bake for forty-five minutes or until top and bottom are browned to your liking. Murrieta says to let the focaccia cool and then cut it into wedges. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I let it cool for approximately five minutes and then cut a small wedge, which I ate standing at the cutting board. Then I reached for the knife again, which was smeared with melted chocolate. I ate the second piece standing in front of the board. Then I cut a much smaller wedge. Then I stepped away from the cutting board, drank a glass of milk and made tea, which I took upstairs so that I did not stay in the kitchen eating focaccia.

It was that good. It was sort of like someone had taken my two favorite things, crusty bread and pie, and magicked them into a single entity. Crusty, gooey, chocolatey, not too sweet, with a fresh cherry taste on top.

Cherry season is short. If you like bread and pie, make this now. Now. And invite some friends over if you don’t want to stay in your kitchen eating the whole thing. You could just call it cherry Kryptonite.

Food notes. This recipe is perfect as is, once you get the flour right. But it is ripe for variations. Try other kinds of chocolate and other kinds of fruit: fresh figs? And then branch out and use almond paste or ricotta filling with cherries or peaches or blueberries. Yum.

On Saturday my friend Margit and I walked through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. I had been the week before and bought my first Brooks cherries of the year, walnuts in the shell, brown mushrooms. Stone fruit is beginning to come in: I saw apricots and bought a couple of baskets of cherries from Kaki Farms. Strawberries continue strong. Blueberries are here. Some vendors had bins of summer squash and the first beautiful broccoli was beginning to peep its heads out of baskets. But the thing that made me happiest was the bunch of basil I bought for two dollars.

Ah, basil. I didn’t even like the stuff when I was a child: it was just another mysterious seasoning in a Spice Island jar, dried and weird. It didn’t remind you of turkey stuffing like sage or pizza like oregano. Fresh basil was not seen or smelt at my house.

painting shows mortal and pestle, basil, basket of walnuts.

Making Pesto. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil, Sharyn Dimmick.

All that has changed now. All late spring, summer and early fall, I buy basil by the bunch and set it like a bouquet in a glass of water on the kitchen counter next to the olive oil. I chiffonade it over green beans and steam them, tuck it into ears of corn before roasting them, add it to Greek salads, put it in turkey meatloaf or burgers. It is probably the herb I use most during the summer. Today and many other days will find me sitting at the breakfast room table, pounding torn basil leaves, salt, garlic, walnuts and grated cheese in my large Vietnamese mortar with a little olive oil.

Did I say walnuts? I did. Classic pesto is made with pine nuts. I have nothing against pine nuts except the cost. If I lived in New Mexico or Italy I might make pesto with pine nuts. Since I live in California I make it with walnuts and have come to love the combination of bitter and sweet freshly cracked nuts with pounded basil leaves and garlic (I also use walnuts to make a cilantro pesto, flavored with lime).

The first pesto I tasted was served in a restaurant (I no longer remember which one). When I lived in San Francisco I used to buy little plastic tubs of Armanino pesto. Then for awhile I made my own in a blender, until my friend Leila mentioned that pounded pesto had a superior texture. Because our blender is old and cranky I was spending lots of time mincing basil and garlic before feeding its maw and I decided to get a mortar and pestle.

My friend Elaine and I went mortar hunting in Oakland Chinatown and I brought back not one mortar, but two: I have a small marble mortar that I use to crush spices and small amounts of nuts and I have my big wooden Vietnamese mortar for pesto duty each summer.

I start in the kitchen, smashing garlic cloves with the side of a knife and peeling the skins away. The garlic goes directly into the mortar and gets a sprinkle of kosher salt, which helps the pestle break down the garlic fibers. Then I take a utility bowl, my basil bouquet and the big mortar and pestle into the breakfast room. I inhale the spicy green scent of the basil as I pick leaves, discard stems, and tear each leaf into smaller pieces. I pick and tear for awhile, then I pound for awhile, then pick and tear another layer of leaves. The aroma gets richer. When I have torn and pounded every last leaf I take the basket of walnuts and nutcracker from the sideboard and start cracking and shelling. There is no measuring involved: the pesto comes together and is done when its taste and texture suits me — the size of the bunch of basil is the determining factor: I will add enough other ingredients to blend with it, to complement it, but the basil is the star, so I start with garlic and salt, add all the basil, then add walnuts. The last step is grating Parmesan or pecorino with my microplane and stirring in a little olive oil.

If I need a break while I am pounding basil I will pour a little olive oil over the top. This helps keep the color bright. I do not care for oily pesto and have a light hand with the oil: I am not too fussy about whether the final product is bright green: I know it will be delicious and we are going to eat every spoonful and scrape the jar besides.

I never get tired of pesto. When the basil really gets going in mid-summer I try to make enough of it to freeze to last all year. I am never successful because if I have fresh pesto on hand I want to eat it on pasta, on sandwiches, in salad dressing, on green beans, on broccoli, on broiled portobello mushrooms, dolloped on the top of a pizza just out of the oven, or added to a winter vegetable soup. Every year I manage to freeze a few small jars or a bag of pesto cubes made in an ice cube tray, but I am dipping into my stash practically as soon as basil disappears from the Farmer’s Market. At the same time, I have days when I wonder why I have bought yet another bunch (or two, if they are on sale), condemning myself to a few more hours of sitting at the table, pounding away when I could be walking or swimming or reading or whatever else it is that people do on long summer days, instead of inhaling basil fumes and oil of walnut rising from warm wood.

We ate our pesto with whole wheat rotini, fresh sugar snap peas and some roasted red peppers from a jar.

Food notes: You can, of course, make pesto with any fresh  leafy herb and any nut. Some people use seeds instead — pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. Margit is allergic to walnuts and pecans so she can make hers with almonds. Elaine has used Brazil nuts successfully. Pine nuts are delicious. You can make pesto from arugula or from soaked sundried tomatoes. Some people make it with spinach or kale. You can mix herbs, too: basil, cilantro and mint is nice, or arugula and mint. You can make it in a blender or a food processor if you have one.

Blogging notes: Susie of SusArtandFood very kindly nominated me for another blogging award, the illuminating blogger award. I love it when people read The Kale Chronicles and I love it when they like it and I really like it when they find something useful here for themselves. What I don’t like is posting blog award patches on my site — I don’t think they look nice. And while I’m happy to let you know what blogs I enjoy reading I am not much good at making lists of them on the spot: I do have lists of links, although I probably should update them — perhaps at my one-year anniversary. You will find more details about me and my life in the posts than you perhaps want so I don’t think you need to know that my favorite color is green or that my favorite ice cream is coffee ice cream. My emphasis is seasonal home-cooked food. I’m quite happy when you read and comment on The Kale Chronicles and I do my best to respond to every comment I receive. Thank you all.

May’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge was pretty twisted – Ruth from The Crafts of Mommyhood challenged us to make challah! Using recipes from all over, and tips from “A Taste of Challah,” by Tamar Ansh, she encouraged us to bake beautifully braided breads. Although I have made pretty challah many times, I was tired this morning. I have recently undertaken a vigorous exercise program, involving walking up hills at the crack of dawn. Yesterday I followed that walk and subsequent breakfast with a walk through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and Andronico’s grocery store, came home to put away the groceries and construct a Caesar salad with kale (note to self: leave the kale out of Caesar salads — remember those tests asking “Which one does not belong?” Can you spell k-a-l-e? It was a noble effort).

Despite taking a day off of hill-walking, I dragged myself to the grocery store (on foot) because I needed milk to make challah, Mom had grossly underestimated our milk supply and I didn’t want to use canned milk or buttermilk sweetened with soda. When I got back to the kitchen the dishwasher was on the dry cycle and I unloaded that.

photo of misshapen loaf of Challah bread

Trolls’ Challah.

Only then could I begin the business of making challah: scalding milk and beating eggs, sifting flour, proofing yeast. I briefly considered embellishments: candied orange peel sounded good, but I have not yet candied my annual supply of citrus peel — the peels are sitting in the freezer, awaiting the day when I feel like doing it. I thought of making some kind of cinnamon glaze, but then I considered how tired I was and the kind of day I was having and decided to make plain old challah, the eggy, braided bread. I would use the recipe from our old Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook because I have used it before and was in no mood to mess around. Plain challah is the most versatile flavor: it can become French toast or bread pudding or croutons and will work for both sweet and savory sandwiches.

Rather than tell you what I did or what the cookbook says to do I will tell you a better way.

Film a saucepan with water.

Add 1 and 1/2 cups milk.

Set on medium heat until scalded (You’ll see small bubbles at the edges and a faint wrinkled skin on top of the milk).

Remove from heat.

In the measuring cup the milk has recently vacated mix 1/2 cup warm water and 4 and 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (2 packets). Whisk together with a fork.

Now measure 3 cups sifted unbleached flour into a large mixing bowl.

Add 1/2 cup whole wheat flour.

Add to cooling milk 1/4 cup butter (half a stick), 1/4 cup sugar and a teaspoon of kosher salt.

When the milk mixture is lukewarm, pour it into your bowl of flour and stir. Add the proofed yeast.

Beat 3 eggs until smooth in your much-used liquid measuring cup. Add to dough mixture.

Now begin adding more sifted flour, most likely about 3 cups plus.

painting shows misshapen loaf of Challah, eggs and butter.

Troll Challah. 8″ x 8″ Gouache on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

The Betty Crocker recipe calls for 7 to 7 and 1/2 cups total sifted flour. You have now used half of that. When I got to this stage I sifted the additional flour 1 cup at a time, adding it to the dough in quarter cup increments. Today, cold and overcast, the dough took a total of 6 and 3/4 cups flour, including the half cup of whole wheat. Although I sometimes knead light doughs by hand, I used my Kitchen Aid for the mixing and basic kneading because challah calls for a large amount of flour. When the dough was smooth and elastic and pulled away from the sides of the bowl I transferred it briefly to a lightly-floured board to rest while I buttered the mixing bowl, preheated the oven to warm and heated a damp linen towel for twenty seconds in the microwave. I gave the dough a couple of quick turns and deposited it in the buttered bowl, covered the dough, turned off the oven and set the bread to rise.

Then I gratefully escaped upstairs for an hour and lay on my bed reading my copy of The Sun, the only magazine I subscribe to. After an hour I rose reluctantly to check the dough which had risen enthusiastically and begun gluing itself to the tea towel.

Prying the dough strands away with my fingernails, I deflated the challah dough and set it for its second rise. I glanced at the clock to determine that it would probably be ready for braiding just as I was ready to eat lunch.

The thing about being tired when you are a scratch cook and stock mostly raw ingredients is that there are no quick and easy lunches unless you have previously made the components. We swing from fresh-prepared meals to meals from leftovers in a regular rotation. I grabbed the nearest carrot and a handful of fresh cherries and put on a kettle for tea. The quickest sandwich I could come up with was cashew butter on store-bought raisin bread toast. True to form the tea was steeping, the toast was toasted and I had just spread the cashew butter on the warm bread when the challah once again threatened to overflow its mixing bowl.

Mom had come down for tea.”I have to braid the challah right now,” I told her and watched as she proceeded to cover the bread board I needed with lettuce and mayo for a cottage cheese salad. She finished, wiped the board cursorily and shoved it back in. I no sooner dried it and gave it a light dusting of flour when she came back and said, “I just need to get in here one more time.”

“What do you need?” I asked.

“Paprika” she answered, reaching for it.

While my toast cooled, although I shoved it back in the toaster oven, I braided the challah into three strands, tucking the ends under. I thought the braid was too long, so I double the loaf back on itself, giving it a double-braided look in the center, re-tucking the ends. I slathered a baking sheet with butter and cranked up the oven to 425 while I rummaged in the freezer for sesame seeds. I found white poppy seeds first. Fine. That would do. As an afterthought, the freezer spit four or five packages onto the floor.

I beat my last egg in the same old measuring cup, brushed it on the challah, dropped some poppy seeds on top and put it in the waiting oven, escaping upstairs with my toast and cherries. Mom turned on a program about the Buddha while I drank my tea (irony of ironies) and thought about how un-Buddha-like it is to snap at my mother. As she poured tea for herself, the lid came off the tea pot and tea fell on her robe. She was not hurt.

I carried the tea tray back to the kitchen to check the challah, In its fervor the yeast had risen magnificently but unevenly, bursting out in bulges, stretching the dough at the braid seams. In short, this was challah fashioned by trolls — it wouldn’t win any beauty contests. (No disrespect to any trolls lurking about).

photo shows cut end of Challah loaf to show crumb and color.

Troll Challah — crumb shot.

After letting it cool, I cut the end from the monster challah. I brought my Mom the coveted end slice and took a slice for myself. The bread showed its trademark yellow crumb and brown shiny crust, releasing its lightly sweet flavor in the teeth and jaws of the local troll population.

Food notes: the half cup of whole wheat flour improves the nutritive value of the bread without altering the characteristic pale yellow interior. I could see the wheat specks like tiny freckles in the raw dough, but all trace of brown disappears in the baked bread. You can, of course, make whole wheat challah, instead, but you will have to adjust the amount of flour used and knead it for at least twenty minutes to achieve any lightness. If you want pretty challah, strive to make your dough strands relatively short and entirely even, braiding with care and symmetry, just as you would braid your prettiest daughter’s hair.

In other news, even trolls, churls and snapping daughters sometimes receive blogging award nominations. More on this on Wednesday…