Monday, June 27, 2011


By far, apricot preserves are my absolute favorite. As I dip my spoon into each luscious jar, it's like eating silky globs of sunshine. I think I've mentioned before that I'm not much of a fan of the apricot in its raw state. Too mealy. But boy, oh boy, when it's cooked up and smushed up with heaps and heaps of sugar, heaven awaits on the tip of every bite.

Some folks use pectin in their apricot jam and I can't quite figure out why, unless they're looking for something more akin to Jello. One of the greatest attributes of the apricot is that it gets to the perfect consistency without any other ingredients aside from sugar. And the fact that the apricot is a breeze to pit makes this fruit all the more appealing for putting up.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am branching out into adventurous tongue-tickling territories. To mess with my most beloved took some bravery on my part. But I pressed forth, exploring worlds yet unknown to my palate. I am more than ecstatic with the results as I believe I may have perfected perfection with this round of jamming.

Apricot Tangelo Jam

This jam turned out much like my standard apricot jam in which I usually use an orange. I substituted a tangelo, because it was what I had on hand, without out any significant alteration to the flavor.

2.5 lbs. apricots
3 cups sugar
Juice and zest of 1 tangelo

Apricot Grapefruit Jam

This was it. This was the ultimate taste accentuation I have been looking for in an apricot jam, even though I had no idea that I was ever looking for it in the first place. I had a couple grapefruits on the counter that were starting to pucker up like the mouth of an old man who had lost his teeth. Maybe they weren't that bad, but they were certainly acquiring a few wrinkles. The slight revision with a more bitter, yet still sweet, citrus took this already perfect preserve into another stratosphere. From now on, this will be my standard apricot jam that I make each year.

2.5 lbs. apricots
3 cups sugar
Juice and zest of 1 ruby grapefruit

Apricot Ginger Jam

I hate to say it, but I think this one might be as good as the apricot grapefruit. I had my doubts, fearing that the ginger would be overwhelming. How wrong was I? Even the husband thought it was fantastic and he doesn't care that much for ginger. I can't wait to slather it on some homemade scones.

2.5 lbs. apricots
3 cups sugar
freshly grated ginger to taste (I think I used about 1-1.5 tablespoons)

Anyone else out there adore apricot jam as much as I do?

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I must be some kind of masochist to have taken on pitting 21 pounds of cherries. By hand. No pitters over here. No sirree, Bob. Just good old fashioned do-it-yourself lunacy. Honestly, it wasn't that bad. I sat in front of the boob tube ensconced in several layers of towels to prevent the deep red spray of these juicy suckers from staining the couch. Took me a few hours, but Jane Austen got me through the trials and tribulations. I should have thought to cover the computer as I'm having to look past the drips in order to type this post.

So what does one do with 21 pounds of cherries?

A lot. This year, I'm pushing past my tendencies to veer towards the safe, plain, tried and true preserves. New preserving territory will be explored. Flavors will be experimented with. I'm sure my cautious nature stems from the fact that jamming and preserving are a lot of work. Aside from the pitting, there is the several hours that you will spend hovering over a hot stove. Who wants to have put in all that time and effort producing something that might taste nasty?

So far, throwing caution to the wind has paid off. Four types of cherry preserves were put up and they all turned out scrumptious.

Here are the recipes and results.

Cherry Lisbon Lemon Jam

Lisbon lemons have a hint of lime flavor to them, which gave the jam a good citrus tang. The following is the list of ingredients I used. You can find general preserving instructions here.

7 cups cherries
5 1/4 cups sugar
zest and juice from 2 Lisbon lemons

Combine all ingredients and simmer until setting point. Be careful not to overcook. The above link tells you that you will need to use pectin in order to get cherries to set. I have not found that to be the case, however with berries and cherries that there is a fine line between jelling and carmelization. I have a tendency to cook these jams for too long and end up with a preserve that once refrigerated is so firm that moving a knife through it is harder than wading through setting cement. While cooking, put a dish in the freezer so that you can pull it out and test for jelling by pouring a glob on the frozen plate (turn off burner when testing so that you don't overcook). Once cooled, the jam should wrinkle when you push your finger into it. When jelled, process in water bath according to instructions in above link.

Cherry Kirsch Jam

Lucky me, I had a bottle of real kirsch sitting around.  It was brought to me several years ago by a friend who was visiting from Germany. Since I don't drink, it has sat on my shelf unopened for at least three years. I could think of no finer way to use it (except maybe in fondue) than with cherries. The kirsch made a fine sweet jam with an added kick.

7 cups cherries
5 1/4 cups sugar
a shot or more of kirsch, depending on taste

Unlike the cherry lemon jam, you don't want to add the flavoring ingredient until the end of cooking. Once the jam has reached its set, add the kirsch.

Cherry Olives

I found this recipe in one of the old Ortho Books (ironically owned by Chevron Chemical Company) on pickling.

2 pounds sweet cherries (either pitted or left whole and pricked with a pin)

Wash cherries and put in hot, sterilized jars. If using pint jars, add 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar, and 1/2 cup of vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar) to each jar (for have pints use half of the measurements). Fill the rest of the jar with water. Process in water canning bath for 5 minutes. Refrigerate and let jars stand about 1 month before using so that the flavor can develop.

Five Spice Cherry Pickles

I got this awesome recipe over at Leena Eats blog. If you love cherries, you should try this one. They are seriously addictive. I used apple cider vinegar rather than the called for white vinegar and really like the flavor.

Are you doing anything interesting with cherries this year?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer Solstice Fruition

Fruit picking. What a wonderful way to honor the solstice by  reaping the bounty that comes from these long days. The three ladies that come by Itty Bitty once a week to learn homesteady stuff, Vanessa, Niki, and Erika,  took a little jaunt with me over to Brentwood for some cherry and apricot picking. It was a beautiful day, though a touch on the warm side for this San Franciscan. Up on the ladders, I could feel a tickle behind my knees as the sweat dripped down my legs in the 100 degree heat. You know it's hot if I'm perspiring. I don't sweat unless it's really freakin' toasty.

The cherries were plump. juicy, and full of flavor. Here's Vanessa gathering a handful.

Vanessa brought her four-year-old nephew, Kai, who had a great time picking off the low branches. We went to Enos Family Farms, the only certified organic u-pick in Brentwood, where they keep the trees pruned so that the branches are low enough for hand-picking. Keeps it engaging for the little ones.

We also picked up some Blenheim apricots, which were in the transitional stage of becoming organic (it takes three years of no chemical inputs to become certified).

These little babies were oh-so-sweet with an excellent texture. I even ate them raw. Not my preferred way to enjoy an apricot as they tend to be mealy in their uncooked state.

Not these guys.

My plan was for the four of us to come back from the picking for a jam party, but that was too much to tackle in one day. Especially since I came back with 21 pounds of cherries and 10 pounds of apricots. When my daughter caught a glimpse of the booty I brought home she said, "Mommy are you going to take the pits out of all those cherries tonight? I don't think you should do that. You'll be up all night and you need your rest."

I took her advice and only pitted half the cherries yesterday. Today I am all day in the kitchen whipping up cherry pickles, cherry olives, two kinds of cherry jam, and putting up the rest in the freezer. I'll post recipes this week.

What about the apricots, you ask? I'll be trying out some apricot tangelo butter, apricot ginger and apricot brandy jam. But I'll save that for tomorrow. A girl can only do so much in a day.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's Getting Hot in Here

Wow, today we had real summer weather in San Francisco. With temperatures in the high 70s, we could wear shorts and tank tops rather than our usual long sleeves, sweater, and, possibly, knitted hat uniforms. How glorious!

The bees were definitely feeling the heat today. During the warm months in other parts of the country, beekeepers usually take the bottom board (a board under the hive with a small hole cut in it to keep the bees warm, but allow some air to get in) out from under the hive, leaving just a mesh screen to keep the bees cool by increasing air flow. But with our San Francisco summer nights dipping below 50 degrees and daytime highs usually hovering around the upper 50s or low 60s, there's no reason for me to remove the board. Consequently on the sporadic hot days, the hive looks something like this:

Freaky, huh?

I felt a little heated myself today so I took a stroll down the alley next to our house to get a cool drink and found a swirling constellation of my bees whizzing down to the pavement to sip from the nasty pools of water at the base of the stairs. This alley is always filled with every vile specimen known to man: feces (animal and human), barf, rotten food, used motor oil, trash of all kinds, broken liquor bottles, old cat food, dead vermin, cigarette butts, and god knows what else. I couldn't bear the thought of my ladies ingesting such filth so I brought them a bowl with some clean, sopping wet rags. I'd heard that this is a welcomed gesture from the bees when the weather is blazing. (Yes, the high 70s is considered blazing for San Fran. Don't make fun or I'll curse you with months and months of dreary, cold fog. Instead of eating popsicles, you'll be crying for hot chocolate. Don't think I won't do it.)

So far, no bee has touched the lovely clean water. They're sticking with icky gross water. Yuck!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Congratulations Ginger!

Remember Lucy's kid, Ginger?

Photo courtesy of Lori Eanes

She had babies! For a month now I have been fretting about her giving birth, being so young and all, and the fact that no question about it, they were her brother's babies. According to my calculations, 150 days from when she left our farm, Ginger should have kidded on May 21st. Well that date came and went and Ginger continued to be a walking giant belly, as per news via Pam, Ginger's new owner. As the days passed, I became more and more concerned, especially after she had gone over 160 days. No one has ever heard of a goat going past 160 days.

Poor Pam, I emailed her every couple of days demanding to know where the babies were, quizzing her on Ginger's health, and pawning off all my anxieties by asking a million questions about her preparations for the impending kidding. You would think that Ginger was still my goat! Obviously, I continue to struggle with letting go. Ginger and Fred were Itty Bitty's first kids and I will always have a very special place in my heart for those two.

Finally, at day 170, after being in labor for three days, Ginger gave birth to a boy and girl. Do you know what that means? The chastity chonies worked! Ginger must have gotten pregnant during her next heat cycle after she left Itty Bitty. 170 days is an impossibility. Lesson learned? Never underestimate the power of a good pair of underwear.

To read all about the birth and see pictures, go to Peaceful Valley Farm Blog. I am so happy for Pam and Ginger. The kids are terribly cute. One of the babies looks exactly like her grandma.

What about Fred? I hear tell that he is being housed with Pam's new pig. Apparently, Fred attempts to headbutt the pig and the pig just plows him over like a bulldozer. I think they are making great friends. They already like the same games.

Monday, June 13, 2011

June Happenings

June has been a weird month as far as weather. We've had several days of rain and howling gales that are more common for early spring. The rain hasn't been too unwelcome as it has kept the greens producing without watering, but we are already seeing signs of powdery mildew on the peas and the apple trees have white fuzzy fungus growing on them. It's not a lot of damage. The wind, however, is driving me nuts. I've always had a strong aversion to wind. It makes me irritable. Highly irritable. And it's pulled my bean plants out by the roots, bent the chard plants that I am trying to save seed from, and nearly ripped off the corrugated roofing on the animal pen that had been glued on with Sikaflex. Damn, that's an angry wind. No wonder I feel like I'm being rubbed the wrong way.

Aside from annoying weather, the apple tree is bursting with fruit. The bees have certainly done their work and it looks as though we will be heavily laden with apple pies, applesauce, apple whatever, and hopefully cider and cider vinegar. The husband is planning to make an apple press, but I'm not sure if he will be able to get to it in time. We should be wading through barrels upon barrels in less than two weeks.

Ethel says I need to repair this fence as the chicks keep escaping through this hole.

Speaking of the chicks, they have graduated to the big girl coop though are not so happy to spend their days with the full grown ladies. Sweet Pea is showing her not-so-sweet side by giving each chick a bit of what for. So they have taken to wandering under the apple tree for some daytime peace and weed munching. Today five of the six made it back to the pen while one of the Dark Cornishes cowered behind a piece of plywood. I think her legs are too big for her to get airborne. Two of the chicks even made it into the coop. That's a first and a good sign that I will spend less time in the evenings chasing recalcitrant chooks around the yard trying to get them to bed.

I'm really proud of the hoop house I set up in my neighbor's yard. Using only rebar, 1/2 inch PVC pipe, 6 mil plastic sheeting, and rubber-tipped clamps, I built the thing for less than $100. The neighbors only use the space to dump trash so I struck a deal with them that if I could use it to grow vegetables, I would keep the area neat and tidy. Thus far it's been an ideal arrangement and I plan to give them a good portion of the harvest.

The plants are absolutely ecstatic to be out of the wind and in some heat. The temperature is usually at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer than anywhere else on our lots. I've even rigged up the drip irrigation in there.

Look at these tomatoes! I was concerned that I might have to buy transplants again this year as I had left the seedlings out in the wind a few too many times. But once I popped them in the poly tunnel, all changed their tune.

I'll keep you updated as to how it works out. I've got more than a dozen varieties of tomatoes, several types of squash, a few cucumbers, beans, and melons growing in there. To think, I might produce a melon in San Francisco! If I'm successful, I will have defied the bounds of growing in a cold, foggy summer micro-climate. Good luck to me, eh?

Baby Bird Update - I'm pretty sure he found his mother. He flew out the window and has not been heard from since. I wish him the best.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Inspirations from the Big and Little Screens: The Cheese Nun

If you know me, you know I love cheese. It is the food of my people, the Swiss. If I could eat only one thing for the rest of my life, I would hands down choose cheese. Food of the gods, I tell you. And it is for this reason that I love the French, for they have 350-400 distinct cheeses, more than any other people in the world. In my opinion, this makes up for any cultural quirks on their part.

But did you know that France is in danger of losing many of the distinct cheeses that set this country apart for its diversity of frommage? Have you ever wondered why the same type of cheese made a mere 10 miles apart can have such different flavor, making each curd unique? It's the microorganisms, baby. Every location, every cave, has its own variety of species, which imparts the flavor special to that area. Many of these caves are being abandoned or new ones are being built. Just ask Noella Marcellino, a.k.a. "The Cheese Nun", a microbiologist who has spent several years studying the variety of fungi that grow on the rinds of cheeses produced in the traditional caves of France. I'm not sure why I am so late to the Cheese Nun party, but now am a complete convert after watching the PBS documentary. The doc focuses on Noella's studies and her importance to the cheesemaking world. If you love cheese and/or are interested in the preservation of agricultural heritage and biodiversity, watch this film.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Guest Blog: Thank-You Nuts

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting a lovely young chicken-owning neighbor, Reilly O'Neal. She came over for a tour a couple weeks ago and we found that we had a lot in common: one daughter, former anthropologists, worked/work in AIDS research, both interested in homesteading. As a gift, she brought with her the most amazing nuts I had ever tasted. I literally could not stop eating them. Right then and there, I demanded that she write a blog post divulging the secret recipe, arguing that the people of the world could not go one more second without tasting these treats. OK, it wasn't that dramatic, but I was persuasive. And seriously, you MUST try this recipe. 

When I visited Itty Bitty Farm in the City for the first time, I brought some homemade candied walnuts to thank Heidi for letting a total stranger pet her goats and ask a bunch of invasive questions about keeping it together as an urban farmer, parent, and spouse.

Sure, walnuts are full of alpha-lino-whatever acid and are a superfood and all, but I wasn’t really thinking of Heidi’s omega-3 intake when I decided they’d make a good gift. I was thinking about where those nuts came from, the love and labor that went into shelling them, and my family’s traditions around that labor.

As a kid, living in Fresno with my mom and her parents—longtime farmers from Texas—I helped shell walnuts and pecans with a nut cracker my grandfather rigged up by hand. My grandmother turned 90 in January and that nut cracker is on the far side of thirty; both are going strong. Granny shelled two hundred pounds of walnuts last year—down from her usual three hundred, she says, because the grower’s son just took over the business and forgot to set aside her full share.

Every time my mom and I meet at Granny’s house, we all crack walnuts until our arms and fingers hurt, taking turns yanking the wooden lever and picking nut halves out of the busted hulls. My mother and I get pounds and pounds of hand-shelled walnuts for birthdays and Christmas and whenever Granny thinks we need more, like when I became a mom myself.

In the first days after our baby girl was born, my mother kept my dazed little family from starving. She fed me spinach salads chock full of “Granny walnuts” she’d jazzed up with spices and her homemade candied orange peel. Nothing before or since has tasted so incredibly delicious, like salty, orangey love. Was that my new-mama oxytocin talking, or just some pretty kick-ass candied walnuts? Recipe follows—you be the judge!

These are easy enough to make with a toddler pin-balling around your kitchen, and I’ve adapted the recipe for either candied peel or fresh zest—which, I now know, is not just a snooty word for orange peel! (It’s the orange part, minus the white pith.) I’ve tried this recipe with walnuts, pecans, and almonds, and the walnuts are my hands-down favorite.

Hope you enjoy!

Kick-Ass Orange-Spiced Walnuts
Makes 2 1/2 cups

1 egg white
1/4 cup sugar, minus 1 teaspoon if using candied peel
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle or other chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/2 cups walnuts
Very finely grated zest from two medium oranges (about 2 teaspoons) OR 2 1/4 tablespoons finely chopped candied orange peel

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Beat the egg white until soft and foamy, with no liquid left in the bottom of the bowl. Combine the sugar, salt, and spices; stir into the egg white, along with the orange zest or candied peel. Add the nuts and stir until well coated. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using a rubber spatula, scrape together all the zest-spice -egg goo left in the bowl, and drizzle it over the nuts.

2. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven. Separate the nuts and stir them around a bit, then spread in a single layer again. (It’s OK to skip this step if you’re pressed for time.) Turn the oven down to 250 degrees and immediately return nuts to bake until they are golden brown and not raw-tasting, about 10 to 20 minutes. (Don’t worry if they’re not crunchy at this point; they’ll crisp up as they cool down.) Set the pan on a wire rack to cool, and break up any nuts that are stuck together. Burn your fingers eating them straight off the pan, or let them cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Chickens at Sunset

Holy cluckin' crap am I exhausted. This weekend kick ass urban farmer Esperanza Pallana of Pluck and Feather and I gave a presentation and fielded hundreds of questions on raising backyard chickens.

We asked for it and boy did those questions come. We were a very popular booth,

which may have had to do with the fact that I brought all of my chicks and hens for show and tell. The kids loved it.

And so did the adults. Most were smitten with the vintage camper inspired demonstration coop in our booth designed by John Wright. There were a lot of folks interested in the idea of chickens, but I was thoroughly shocked to meet so many Sunset readers who currently raise their own hens, some of whom have been doing it for years and years.My favorites may have been the friends of Dorothy trio living in Sacramento where one had been raising chickens on the sly for nearly 20 years. Apparently, it has been illegal in Sacramento since the 70s, but they are hoping to change the laws this upcoming month. I wish them the best of luck.

Another highlight from the event was this totally rad chicken coop called the Kippen House (Kippen means "chicken" in Dutch) that had a garden bed for a roof. It was absolutely gorgeous!

I didn't have much time to explore the rest of the festival with all the people wanting to chat chickens. I am so grateful that our friends over at FARMcurious and Dog Island happened to be there too, as they were indispensable in helping out with all the cluckin' questions. By the end of it all we were completely chickened out. I think Esperanza's face says it all.

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Are You My Mother?

This evening I found this little guy peeping frantically outside the chicks' run.

Poor bugger was beating himself against the chicken wire mesh until he finally broke through to get at the chicks. I couldn't quite figure out his intents until I saw him squat underneath the girls with his beak gaping up wide open. This fledgling apparently lost his mama and figured the chicks would due as surrogates. Yeah, not really. The girls stared into the baby's mouth and did what any chicken would do. Went for the tongue like it was a tasty worm. I tried to get him inside and give him a little food, but he flew off into the basement rafters. After an hour's chase, climbing on furniture to try and capture the flighty devil, I gave up as I had had a long day at the Sunset Magazine Celebration. Let's hope this little tale has a Dr. Suess ending. If only I were a Snort. Then maybe I could find his mother.

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