Blogging for (my own) Bliss

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 29, 2010 Under Uncategorized

Why blog? Well you might ask. There are a lot of reasons, but mostly it’s fun. I love taking pictures of the ranch, because when I take them, I have to focus and be mindful. Those are good things. It’s my way of being grateful.

For the horses in the meadow.

For the Farewell-to-Springs that are now blooming all over the place.

But, there are other reasons, too.

When we first moved up to the Sierras and I was an hour and a half from just about everything, I turned to the internet for answers pretty much on a daily basis. Need a recipe that would use all the ingredients in the hydrator? Google. The car sound funny? The cat’s eyes running? Google and ditto. It wasn’t long before I found a whole bunch of women’s blogs that I kept returning to.

In the darkest days of the economy with two wars going, I could forget about all this for a while. On the women’s blogosphere, I’d always find some funny, feisty lady who was doing something creative—anything from making quilts out of her husband’s old flannel shirts from the hippie days (you know, the ones with the holes in the elbows he refuses to throw away?), to making bath salts, or homemade paper. Then, of course, there’s Pioneer Woman’s chocolate sheet cake. That will cheer you up right there!

Finally, I got tired of lurking around in these women’s web homes without introducing myself and offering something in return. This is my attempt. And believe me—if I can do it, so can you. I have absolutely noooo idea what I’m doing. The dashboard of my WordPress site might as well be the dashboard of a 747. But hey, it’s only a blog! Nobody dies, right? My son-in-law is a medical emergency helicopter pilot. I can’t even imagine the courage and nerves of steel it takes to do his job. The least I can do is be just the littlest bit brave.

And then there all my friends in the city, my old book group, the people I taught with, my former neighbors who are beginning to think I fell off the face of the earth. This way they can visit me. Just pour a cup of tea, a glass of wine, turn on the computer and— Yoo Hoo… here I am, y’all.

If you think you want to give this a try, you should check out Tara Frey’s book Blogging for Bliss. And you should definitely check out Pioneer Woman’s Best Chocolate Cake Ever.

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Making Apricot Jam on a Summer Day

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 22, 2010 Under Uncategorized

Summer’s arrived at the ranch!

We sleep under the whirl of the ceiling fan, the cool air blowing on the sheets. I’d forgotten all this long winter how much I loved listening to the purr of the fans in the middle of the night. Soon the creeks will dry up and the coyotes will visit the pond, bringing their haunting cries. But right now, evening surrounds us with the croaks of frogs and crickets. On black, moonless nights, there are a million stars above us.

Dawn comes early and cool. I pad into the kitchen, make coffee and drink it under the shade of the porch in my favorite rocking chair, watching the birds splash in the birdbath and the horses grazing in the tall grass. Then I get to work—I deadhead the flowers and water the plants. Dave goes up the vegetable garden and checks that the soaker hoses are on.

That pretty much does it. By then, the heat’s ramped up to the nineties, and we’re done until evening. What, then, do you do when you’re lucky enough to be able to be “idle and blessed” as the poet Mary Oliver writes?

Well, today I made apricot jam. A friend brought me a flat of the wonderful Royal Blenheims they grow in the valley. They’re only available for about two weeks. Here’s a picture of the first few jars. No pectin—just fruit, sugar and lemon juice. While the Royal Blenheims are wonderful, apricot jam is splendid no matter what. Get a hold of some at the farmer’s market and here’s my recipe:

Jane’s Sweet and Tart Apricot Jam (Summer in a Jar)

8 cups of apricots cut into quarters
3 cups of sugar
juice of 3 lemons
1/4 cup water

I use the largest, round (not oval) Le Creuset Pot there is. I add the fruit and the water and turn on the heat. I put in the sugar and lemon juice and stir frequently as it comes to a boil. I turn the fruit mixture to a simmer, and remember–keep stirring every few minutes. You don’t want the jam to scorch ever! It’s a good time to clean out your cutlery drawers or organize your spices, because you’re going to be in the kitchen for an hour.

After an hour, the jam will have jelled. I pour it into sterilized jars, turn them upside down on the counter for about fifteen minutes. Turn them right side up and listen for the pop that tells me they’ve sealed. They are like sunshine in the cupboard.

There’s always some jam left over that doesn’t fit into the jars. I use that as an excuse to make a crostata. Dave and I use to have jam crostata with our espressos at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar shop and cafe in North Beach in San Francisco. No reason to change that little treat, since we bought ourselves a fancy espresso maker for up here.

Here’s my version of Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Crostata di Mama:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cooking time about 30 minutes.
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of kosher salt
grated rind of 1/4 of a lemon
2 egg yolks beaten
8 oz( one stick) melted butter (cooled)
2 TBS. milk

Blend dry ingredients in a big ceramic bowl. ( I use my old yellow-ware for this). Make a well, add the liquid ingredients and lemon rind and fold the dry ingredients into the liquid middle with your hands. Blend until you have a soft dough and knead a few times. At this point, I roll half the dough out into a 1/2 thick square on a silicone mat and put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes. I roll the other half out onto wax paper and pop it in the freezer, too.

When the dough is cold, I turn it onto a greased and floured baking sheet and spread 1/2 cup of jam on it. I cut lattice strips from the other half of the dough and lay them in a diamond pattern on top of the crostata. I brush the tops of the lattice with an egg wash, pop it the oven and bake for about a half an hour.

Here it is! The lattice top isn’t perfect, but then I don’t live on planet perfect. Do you?

So good, so easy, and you don’t even have to go to Italy or San Francisco!

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And Making It Through the First Year

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 15, 2010 Under Uncategorized

I’m trying to remember that first year, the one the propane guy thought I wouldn’t make it through.

I have to admit once I’d moved up here, I found myself missing the little boost of self-confidence I’d gotten from living in Berkeley—from living in the trendiest place in the most fashionable neighborhood in the coolest city in America. Berkeley. The city with the highest number of PHDs and MacArthur Genius Award recipients. The paradise of the liberals. The place where people argue that Obama is too conservative.

Jane at beginning of house remodelNot that I hadn’t worked hard to make a beautiful life there. I had scraped layers of paint off a hulking brown shingle fixer-upper we’d bought back in the dark ages when young couples in Berkeley could afford five bedroom homes. I’d had the floors sanded and the kitchen remodeled. I’d stood at the Viking six-burner range and cooked up gourmet meals prepared from only the finest ingredients. I’d planted vintage roses and spring bulbs and fruit trees in the garden. I’d heard Cecilia Bartoli at Zellerbach and had seen Bill T. Jones dance there. I’d eaten at Chez Panisse and Oliveto’s. In fact, I used to sip an espresso at Oliveto’s while waiting for my daughter’s school bus to drop her off at the Rockridge Bart station. We’d buy fresh pasta and bouquets of tulips before heading home.

“Ah Bairklay,” the beautiful girl at the bookstore on Rue du Princess in Paris sighed when I told her where I was from. Even in the City of Light, Berkeley carried a certain cachet. I’d created a charmed life.

And then one day, it seemed I had outgrown it. I still loved my garden, my house, my friends, but nothing seemed to fit. I knew I had to do something different, and it was terrifying.

However . . . instead of doing something different, what happened for a year or two was this: I became a complete bitch. Everything irritated me—the dot com guy behind my house with his flashy home office and his—not one but two—nannies, the woman in the Berkeley Bowl parking lot taking forever to load her groceries into her Volvo with the Free Tibet sticker, the car alarms, the traffic helicopter circling the Caldecott Tunnel, the damn dogs tied up and yapping in front of Royal Coffee, and the sight of young men in those biking suits. I’m sorry. I just didn’t need THAT much information with my latte.

Gentle Readers, what I remember of my first year here is a blur, but whatever happened, you’ll be glad to know I’m a lot nicer now. I go back to Berkeley and I’m filled with tenderness for the yapping dogs, and the skinny, young bikers, the Volvos and the bumper stickers. It’s a thrill for me to buy luxury items at the Pasta Shop and just-flown-in scallops at the fish market that I pack in ice to take back to the mountains. I see the nannies, and I’m flooded with compassion for the struggles of those young couples with children. I admire all their earnest striving. I remember how hard it was to live so well.

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Rain . . .

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 8, 2010 Under Uncategorized

Henry James said the most beautiful words in the English language were summer afternoon. But for me, it’s the word rain. Maybe you have to live in the California foothills to really love rain. By the end of summer, we’re parched and dusty, worried about fire and desperate for any moisture at all.

Rain byt Elvis PayneLast night, maybe around four, I woke up and heard the comforting sound of rain falling on the roof. It’s March here, and we’ve been counting the inches of rain after a three- year drought. Will it get past thirty? Our normal. Will we get more to make up for the dry years? Checking the rain gauge is one of the first things we do in the morning, adding up a third of an inch here, a half there.

I’m a terrible insomniac, but now that I’m retired and living up here, I think of it as a blessing. All that quiet time just to myself, snug under the quilts with Dave and the cat. I remember my dreams. I plan the garden. Last night, I imagined the rain pouring from the roof onto the window boxes where I’ve planted blue hyacinths for the smell of spring. Since it’s still cold up here, I waited for that moment when the dripping sound of the rain would stop, and I would know the rain had turned to snow. After a while, it came. Such quiet. A spring snow.

Just after we’d moved up here, the first rain in October was a violent affair like most of our early autumn rains. Dave was still working three days a week in the Bay Area, and I was alone. The first crack of thunder sounded like a bomb, then came lightning—the whole sky white with it. The electricity went out in the house, and the cat dove under the bed. I stood on the screened porch, counting the numbers between lightning and thunder and trying to guess how close the storm was, ready to make a run for the fire hose if the house got hit. Would I even remember how to use it? It was something like a lawn mower; you pulled a rope and the gas engine started. I kept reminding myself of the routine until the time between the thunder and lightning got longer and the hills to the south of me seemed to be getting the brunt of it. After a while, I was left with just the sound of the rain pummeling the roof and the cedar branches. Even the wind had lessened, and the dried blue oak leaves—hard as pebbles that time of year— stopped blowing against the windowpanes.

The next morning the sky was bright blue; the world washed clean. Leaves and downed twigs littered the hills and the dirt road. I still had no electricity, and when the propane guy drove up to fill our tank, I asked, “ Do you all have power?” “Nope, “ he replied pulling the gas hose off the truck. “Gotta get a generator,” was his advice. After he’d filled the tank, he hopped back in the driver’s seat and studied me for a while, figuring I was hopeless. I’d last a year max. “It’s different up here,” he told me as he drove off.

No kidding.

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An Old Maine Farmhouse, Living the Good Life

Posted by admin on Thursday Jul 1, 2010 Under Uncategorized

The next surprise was we weren’t going to have chicken-fried this or chicken-fried that. (Sorry Pioneer Woman) Helen and Scott were vegetarians. They didn’t eat meat. I must have stood, slack-jawed, in the middle of the carrot patch when she told me that. It never occurred to me you didn’t have to eat meat. Vegetarian—another new word beside cove.

(A quick aside for all you folks wondering how on earth I could have lived ten years and not have made a pie.) I grew up in the south before Rosa Parks ever said she would not give up her seat on the bus. The kitchen was the domain of the help. In fact, everything that seemed to require any work at all was the domain of the help. And while my parents were enlightened, and I was expected to clean my own room and make my bed, we still had the help. I never had to do anything. Thank God those days are over.

Wait I’m wrong. My 8th grade gym teacher said there were three things a girl had to learn to do: play a mediocre game of bridge, a mediocre game of golf, and a mediocre game of tennis. That way you’d be fun to be with, but you wouldn’t intimidate men. Okay, so I had to be mediocre. Clearly, no one had ever told Helen she had to be mediocre, that she had to cover up who she was. I didn’t know the word frank then, but being around her, I felt it—that here was a woman who said what she wanted to say and was who she wanted to be. And the freedom to do that, for me, would forever be all mixed up with being on a farm picking berries and vegetables.

used with permission Big Grey Mare

Helen and I finished filling our baskets with beans and tomatoes, carrots and tiny new potatoes and took them back to the kitchen where we made a quick soup. After that, Helen pulled a big wooden bowl from the oven, yanked off the cloth covering a mound of dough and said, punch this down. When it was clear I had no idea what she was talking about, she said, like this, shoving her fist into the dough and making it collapse.

Later that evening with twilight coming through the long kitchen windows, we ate our soup—delicious, simple— and slathered our bread with homemade jam. The pies came to the table amid oohs and aahs. Eventually, someone lit some candles. I had never been happier. I hadn’t learned the expression “Living the Good Life”, but I felt it. And later, when Helen and Scott Nearing, our hosts that week, wrote their book with that title, I took it with me to Colorado where Dave got his first University job. It sat on the kitchen shelf next to The Tassajara Bread Book and an organic gardening book titled “Grow Your Own”.

As the years have gone by, I’ve eaten in fine restaurants, in Paris, in Italy, in San Francisco, but that meal in Maine with my family and the Nearings on a long summer night, that meal I can still taste.

It was that good, and I had worked for it. If you want to see Helen and Scott’s farm and get inspired yourself, here’s the link.

What got any of you started down your path? I’ve told you my story. I’m curious about yours.

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