Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Let the holiday season begin!

The holidays are here! I've never grown jaded or become "too cool for school" when it comes to the holiday season. I love the overplayed Christmas songs, the cheesy traditions, and ingesting all those empty calories. Fortunately I've found a kindred in my new friend Melissa, who spent the night a few times over the past several weeks on visits from her home in Fort Bragg. On one such night we went to the grocery store for something very sensible, and came home with all the fixings for gingerbread houses.

Getting Our Gingerbread On

A few of the many things going on here: two cans of
frosting, sour patch kids and dots, gluten-free animal
cookies, persimmon slices, wasabi peas, frito twists,
and a Trader Joe's lager. 
I help myself to some frosting...

...while Melissa indulges in some Fritos.
That wig is popular these days!
My house from the front. Notice the bison pet and the
sour patch kids lounging in the cupcake liner hot tub.
Melissa was convinced that hers was much, much better.
I admit that it was, though mine was much, much tidier.

Thanksgiving Warm-Up

Later that week, the Road B crew put on their annual massive Thanksgiving, which happens the Sunday before. Carson and I got all gussied up and made a trial sweet potato casserole to bring. Unfortunately no one told us about the 4 hour change in start time, so while we felt fashionably late, we actually showed up to an empty venue. A few drinks and some football later and we were back. The food was incredible! I skipped the long line for the meat table (four turkeys! ribs! a gallon of gravy!) and helped myself to heaps of the amazing vegetarian entrees. Eventually I went back for meat but it almost wasn't necessary. Here's a shot of one of the rooms (yes, there were two rooms of people, though this was the more crowded one).

Thanksgiving, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

For the actual Thanksgiving day celebration, Mary Anne and Howie were kind enough to invite us to their 20-year-long tradition of co-hosting with another family. This year it was at their house, and I helped Mary Anne menu plan. She wanted to pre-carve the turkeys like she'd seen Julia Child do, and I suggested we recruit Carson for his butchering expertise. He did not disappoint! He even wielded a hatchet when the butcher knife was nowhere to be found. Here he is while Mary Anne and her son Drew (note the incredible Terminator t-shirt) look on:

I made gluten-free cornbread stuffing for the birds, plus regular bread stuffing for general consumption. I also made a Chinese broccoli salad which was really fresh and crisp against all those other rich, mushy dishes, and of course, pies. I'm happy to report they turned out perfectly! I made one pumpkin and one pecan, both delicious. The crusts were a hit. I put them in the freezer before baking so they were as cold as possible per a trick I read online, and it really helped slow their bake time. This is definitely my go-to gluten-free crust from now on. Even two days later it was still tasty.

Carson made version two of the sweet potato casserole, this time swapping goat cheese for heavy whipping cream. That plus thyme and honey made one damn fine dish. We used my new mandolin to make superfine sweet potato slices and it was fun but scary. I can definitely see myself slicing off part of a finger one of these days.

Mary Anne sets a beautiful table, and in this case she set two for the 21 guests. I loaned her my dining table which has three leaves - its full length rarely sees the light of day so it was fun to use. Here's a shot of one of the centerpieces. The persimmons are from my tree:

Here are Lucy, Carol, and Mary Anne working on stuffing the birds:

Thanks to the butchering done the night before in which the backbone, wishbone, and some of the leg bones were removed, the turkey cooked for half as long and was simple to carve. 

The turkey was incredible! Very moist with crispy skin. The cornbread stuffing didn't hold its form at all but it didn't matter - it was delicious.

Here's the general scene right before eating. It was jovial to say the least. 

I remembered to get someone to take a picture of us before the wine, food, and conversation distracted us:

Before dinner we all went around and shared what we were grateful for. It got a little emotional and I was  moved and felt so blessed to be a part of this special tradition. I love Thanksgiving and can't imagine having a better place in Mendocino to spend this one.

After dinner, as is their tradition, we played charades. This is not a game often in my repertoire, and certainly not in Carson's, but we were good sports. It got competitive! After playing together for 20 years the regulars know each other and how to write tricky items that are nearly impossible for the other team to guess. I got lucky with my first one - the movie "Lincoln" - but my second one - the song "Anyday" by Eric Clapton - was a no go. Two minutes is an eternity when you're trying to figure out what sounds like 'any' and how to act it out. Carson nailed both of his. Too bad we were on opposite teams! His team won but we all had fun which was all that mattered.

All in all it was a really special and memorable day.

More Pie Experimentation

To ease myself out of the Thanksgiving spirit, I made one last pie. I had leftover pumpkin filling and wanted to try the cream cheese crust with regular flour. It looks beautiful here, and it tasted good, but for the amount of cream cheese and butter in that sucker it should have made my mouth much happier than it did. The elasticity of gluten is just too much for the cream cheese, and it was more chewy than flaky. Lesson learned! I'll stick to all-butter crusts when using regular flour from now on. 


Tomorrow Carson and I go to San Francisco to take advantage of an amazing "park sleep fly" deal in which we get a night in a pretty decent hotel plus 14 days of parking and an airport shuttle for $140 (almost too good to be true). It's a bit strange to live so far from the nearest major airport but that's what I get for moving to the country. Then on Friday morning we fly into Puerto Vallarta to explore the Jalisco coast for 13 days (!!). I will have my computer but we'll see if I manage to blog from there. Carson is dead-set on learning to surf, which fits nicely into my plan to sit on the beach reading one of the four books I'm taking. I can't wait!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

This is not my beautiful life

Here's what I've been up to since my last update post, mostly in photos.

No translation needed

I attended a gardening workshop at the Mendocino college on behalf of the Gardens Project in case they needed a translator. They didn't, so instead I just got to enjoy learning about how to build hoop houses.

Not improving my opinion of cats

Carson's landlady asked us if we would watch her cats while she went out of town. This worked out well since Carson was gone for a few of the days and so was I so we tag-teamed. One of the cats would not leave me alone; every time I sat down it curled up around my neck. Throwing him off was futile. (Most people who know me know that I am not a cat lover, making this particularly annoying to me/funny to everyone else.)

Having been raised in the country, Carson is an animal whisperer. He bends them all to his will, and had the cat trained in about 2 minutes to sit nicely BEHIND him:


Eat Local

To celebrate local food day, The Gardens Project hosts a dinner called Farmer's Night Out with the fanciest restaurant in town, Patrona. Anyone can go but farmers eat for free, which is pretty cool. I volunteered so I got in for free, and Carson is a farmer of sorts so we had a very inexpensive date night:

This is a significantly better picture of me, with my friend and Gardens Project Americorps volunteer Natalie:

Halloween on the Coast 

I went to Fort Bragg to visit Whitney and celebrate Halloween (sort of) with Whit, Sara, and their friend Melissa who is now my friend Melissa. Here's a pic I snapped on my way to the party:

Yes, this is the same costume I wore last year, only with much less effort - no makeup, no fake eyelashes, no heels. But we didn't leave Melissa's house so it didn't really matter.


The next weekend I went back to my friend's mountain house. He and his neighbor went crabbing and came back with 20 gorgeous crabs, which we devoured. I wish I'd taken a picture of us eating them because it was a scene, but I was too busy shoving crab into my face (I ate two... yikes). We were all a hot mess by the end of it. Notice the dogs snagged one for themselves:

Election = Relief

I spent election day avoiding the news, but hit the local brewery once the election had been called for Obama. The failure of Prop 37 in California about GMO labeling was disappointing, but hey - gay marriage! Legal weed! No asshats who say horrific things about rape representing us! All in all a resounding success for the liberal half of the country, and I really believe for everyone, even if 49% of us don't think so.

You know you're in a small town when you've only lived there for two months but know two separate groups of people at the pub:

Photo Fail

My friend Meagan and her boyfriend Rob stopped in Ukiah on their way to the coast for her birthday weekend. Sadly I didn't take any photos because we had a really fun time walking around my neighborhood and eating some comfort-food soup I made. They were both blown away by how cute my adoptive town is ("Ukiah - who knew?") and I hope they come back to stay longer in  the near future.

Navel gazing at my good fortune (and eating cookies)

The other day, Carson made cookies. Amazing cookies. He is thoughtful and precise in everything he does, and apparently whipping up a batch of baked goods qualifies as being worth his time and energy to make them perfect. I have never once rolled chocolate chip cookies into uniform balls and gotten uniform cookies as a result. I can tell you who's in charge of the chocolate chips from now on, and it's not me.

Being an adult...

Oh, I've been working too. I have several different freelance jobs with at least one more on the way in December. So, yeah... I'm not a bum anymore! As a result, I've been spending a lot of time at my sweet little desk:

...lets you go on vacation!

It's a good thing I'm working, since Carson and I are going to MEXICO. Woohoo! We leave on November 30 and get back December 12. We'll fly into Puerto Vallarta, only 3.5 hours from San Francisco (it takes almost as long to get to the airport from here), and head south. Last year my friend Jacob and I flew into PV and headed north; I seem to keep scratching off another length of Mexico's coast with each trip. Carson's never been to Mexico and has never really been on a vacation like this, so we're going to ease into it with three nights at a fancy hotel (with oceanfront terrace, swoon). From there we'll rent a car and hit some of the small towns that make me love Mexico so much.

Life is magical!

Friday, November 16, 2012

This is why you make practice pies

Tonight was my first time trying a gluten-free crust, in anticipation of Thanksgiving. Secret ingredient: cream cheese. Having never made a cream cheese crust, I didn't realize that you just sort of smoosh it into the pie dish instead of actually trying to roll it out. After rolling and separating it from the well-floured counter with a butter knife, it disintegrated as I tried to transport it to the pie tin. There was cursing. I was delighted when I finally looked it up, though; you just smoosh that puppy right into the tin! Pie crusts always crack on me and stress me the hell out, but the cream cheese crust was fun like playdoh to work with. For maybe the third time in the 50+ pies I've cooked in my life, I had a perfect edge:

The brown flecks are almond meal, which really added to the flavor of the crust.

I picked 10 persimmons from my tree, sliced them, blanched them in brown sugar water, and then coated them with lemon juice. I added a jar of the plum mint jam I'd made back in July, plus some gluten free flour to thicken it up.

Since the dough was way too soft to cut lattice out of, and since I didn't have much left, I smooshed a heart out for the top.

Critical error: basing the cook temperature and time on the pie filling, not on the experimental pie crust. D'oh.

This burned after just 30 minutes!! It was the 375 that killed us; my gut told me that it was too high and I ignored my gut.

However, the heart is delicious and the bottom crust was pretty good so it's probably a gluten-free winner. It just needs to be cooked "low and slow" (as they say on BBQ Pitmasters, which I have been inexplicably addicted to this week).

As for the filling, it's good but not amazing. It's my first time cooking with persimmons and the texture of them turned out nicely, so it's not a fail in any way. Just not the best pie filling. I think persimmons will lend themselves better to being totally covered or contained in something, and the flavor should continue to get better as they ripen; right now they're pleasant but fairly bland. Also, I should research the thickening capabilities of gluten-free flour, as it was fairly runny. I doubt 20 more minutes in the oven would have fixed that.

Lessons learned: 

1) Make this gluten free pie crust for Thanksgiving. Save time and stress by not rolling the damn thing out and instead smooshing away. Cook at 300 or 325; check frequently.

2) Make a pie filling I have mastered for Thanksgiving, probably pumpkin (which should match the crust's temperature and - fingers crossed - cook time).

3) Even when you burn a pie that has a just okay filling, it's still pretty delicious.

p.s. I did most of this in my Diana Ross wig.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fall photos from around my 'hood

I've been obsessed with the fall in Mendocino. When I came in June I knew what to expect from the summer: hot and dry days, cool nights. But now we're transitioning into a new season and I'm enthralled by the changes. Turns out, fall in Mendocino is gorgeous. It stays warm well into November. Even though it's gotten cold two or three times, it jumps back up into higher temperatures a few days later. (Case in point: there was frost on the ground three mornings this and last week, but today and tomorrow it will hit 72 degrees.) It has rained - and when it rains it means business - but between the rain it tends to be sunny with poofy clouds. What a concept! I can't wait for a non-grey winter. There are more leaves on the ground than on the trees now, but it's still a lovely time of year.

View from in front of my house, November 1.

Civic center lawn, November 1. (I'm quite
taken with sunburst photos lately.)
Stormy skies, November 9.
Standing in exactly the same spot as the stormy sky photo
above. This was a great day of storm and sun - I even
saw a nice little rainbow!
Continuing on my walk, November 9. It started pouring
rain the instant I arrived at my destination, where I
curled up on the couch with some tea and helped plan
Thanksgiving dinner.
Fog over Lake Mendocino, early morning, November 10.
Sun over young vineyard, late afternoon, November 10.
Green tomatoes I was planning to pickle
turned mostly into ripe tomatoes for sauce.
Dining table scene: flowers and chairs
courtesy of my friend/Mendo mom Mary Anne
(at whose house Carson and I will spend
Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays).
Same view as first photo, November 14 (taken 1 minute ago
actually). Fewer and duller leaves but still more interesting
than the bare bones we'll have all winter.  Of course I'm
sure I'll think those are lovely, too.