Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our Edible Garden, Part Deux

As predictable as a change in the weather, a little time off, an inspiring vacation and a good read -- these things will generate some new project in my world.

Project?  Back Up the Truck!
The books I pick up usually are in some way tied into my vacation destination.  Logical or not, I feel like I'm eeking a little bit more out of my travel experience if I'm taking in someone else's perspective too.

French Dirt, by Richard Goodman, was just that book on this last trip.  Actually, John read it first and couldn't stop talking about what "we" could do to expand our own kitchen garden.  The next thing I knew, a grand plan was being hatched for a chunk of our backyard.  I better get reading!

John's working on our ambitious plans
Goodman and his girlfriend Iggy rented a 200 year old stone house in the South of France for a year.  The town being tiny, Goodman endeavored to connect with the locals.  After multiple attempts to strike up a meaningful conversation and running low on money, he offers to trade his labor on a farm for firewood.  As he begins to mix with the locals, he witnessed every one's very plentiful vegetable gardens.  So inspired by others, he talks one of his new village friends into loaning him a plot of land for a season.  His readers can't help but share in his trials and tribulations with ultimately gratifying results of having a cultivated patch of his own.

I've always loved gardening, and in the last couple of years amped up my gardening focus on edibles.  Some of you may remember what motivated me do so in my post, Supersize Me... My Way.

Our first edible producing turnips, snow peas, carrots, lettuce
 and garlic
Enjoying our successes and having taken a Permaculture class last year, I already concluded our yard had so much more potential to be productive.  Hey...we could even save a few grocery dollars over the long run if we did more.  It didn't take too much prodding to get me on board for the next generation of kitchen gardening at the Avey homestead.

No time wasted!  Our first free day off together after our vacation we targeted the spot for our new garden, visualized, debated and removed plants which weren't working anyway.  Later that evening John said, "I can't wait to start digging."  Yes, digging!  Anyone who knows John well knows he doesn't like digging.

But Sammi likes to dig
To the man who uttered those words, I asked, "what have you done with my husband?"  A smile with a glimmer in his eye told me enough.  He is a man on a mission.

Both of us are aiming for a bigger and better vegetable plot than the last one we created.  But, like Goodman, we hadn't calculated the potential issues or consequences that laid before us.  Oops, I meant to say "opportunities."

First "opportunity:"  we no longer have a truck to get wood home.  Delivery?  Delivery costs exceeded the cost of the material!  John went to Lowes early one morning to snag the one and only first come first serve rental truck ... only to have it rented out from under him just 5 minutes before.  Grrr.  Lowe's Delivery guys feel John's pain and they give him delivery for the price of the rental truck.  Woo-hoo and a tip o' the hat, Lowes!

Second brain stumper:  should we or should we not dig out the grass where the future plot will lie?

No!  We laid down landscape fabric in the bed blocking grass and weeds before dropping dirt in the raised bed.

Water the plot?  How to get water to the area without reworking the whole sprinkler system?

We installed a portable hose to connect to a soaker hose.  A soaker hose is more efficient and less troublesome to plant leaves.

We needed lots and lots of good soil.  But soil is a very expensive proposition if you buy it buy the bag to fill 120 cubic feet.  Neither of us realized we would have to budget over $600 if we had to buy bags...ouch!  No matter what, dirt had to be delivered to us. 

To overcome the pricey bag option, we ended up buying soil in bulk; it came in less than half the cost and no waste.  Overwhelming when delivered?  Oh yeah!

It became even more overwhelming when we had to manually shovel it in a wheel barrel and then dump it in the new bed.  My sore muscles reminded me of just how much dirt we moved.

It's all been worth it though.  Our raised bed is built and ready for planting all those edibles.

Now the fun part for me.

I'm studying my Edible French Garden book a girlfriend gave me several years back.  It's loaded with tips, plants, guides and recipes.

In the meantime, John's at our favorite nursery, Sperling's in Calabasas.

Remember I said there were unanticipated consequences?   John's incessant talk of our new edible garden inspired his work buddies to jointly build one of their own.  And John being the generous guy he is has volunteered "us" to help them build it!  Oh my little arms....

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thinking About Food

I may have been prattling along about some food choices for the evening.  But then again we were hosting friends for the weekend and did want to provide options.  And there are so many options in LA such as...

A Juicy Umami Burger

An Outdoor Experience at our Favorite Aroma Cafe

Just then my girlfriend Susan said...

Do you always think about food?

After considering my historical timeline......


Isn't that what passion is about?  Thanks for reminding me Susan!  What's your passion?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Splurge-Worthy Cooking Class...Parisian Style

As the eve of our 25th anniversary approached and the plans for the trip to Paris took their final shape late last year, it became obvious to my husband and I that a dinner in the City of Lights would be wonderful, but, predictable.  What to do, what to do...

In a light bulb moment I stumbled across Cook'n with Class.  A relatively affordable, hands-on English speaking class in Paris open during the Christmas/New Year's week.  Gotta love the Internet! 

With the payment for the class made, we were given instructions to meet at a Metro stop in the Montmartre neighborhood.  Look for a green grocery cart.  Two other couples emerged from the metro stop looking for the very same thing.  My husband, in his typically shy manner, approached them and by the time our chef de jour, Patrick, arrived with green cart in hand, we were already introduced and laughing at the frivolity of it all.  Off to the evening markets we go to find the freshest ingredients the class will use to prepare the evening's meal.

Our first stop was the cheese shop.

First many choices.  I had no idea France has over 1000 cheeses!  They do because they have less restrictions on the use of unpasteurized milk unlike we do in the United States.  I don't believe I can overstate this: The French take their cheese very seriously!

The French traditionally have a cheese plate as dessert; not as an appetizer.  A bit overwhelmed, Patrick cleared up the mysteries of mold, aroma, rinds and textures.  Some molds and rinds are okay to eat; even the fuzzy ones although I don't think I'll put my digestive tract to the test on the fuzzy ones.  We ended up selecting 6 cheeses; one of which was incredibly stinky but rewarding at the end of the meal.

On to the butcher and the fishmonger to whittle down our appetizer and main choices, but not before getting a quick lesson on why French butchers display their meat with heads and talons or the merits of developing a relationship with the merchant.

So why haven't the butcher's product lost their heads and feet yet?  It is all about fraud protection.  Take the Bresse chicken, the priciest and tastiest chicken in France.  The way you can tell you have the real thing is by the red crested head, the white breast and the blue feet (the colors in the french flag to help you remember).  Just like many of the merchants at farmers market's all over the U.S., I love the transparency between supplier and buyer.

The fishmonger can be your best friend.  Patronize his shop often and learn that the front display is there for a quick sale.  Go deeper into the store to find the freshest of the fresh.

If he really likes you, he'll help you find the best oysters of the seasons.

By this stage, our little group has found its groove and Patrick asks for a vote to select an entree.  Our choices; either a very nice looking insanely fresh salmon from Atlantic waters or a freshly plucked duck.  We unanimously choose the duck.  Back to the butcher, he advises on the selection of our feathered friend and we watch as he expertly carves two breasts -- enough for the 7 of us.

Quick stops at the produce and boulangerie markets for all the supporting cast of characters.  We'll have sides of vanilla infused mashed potatoes, a sweet onion topping for our duck and a zucchini flan.  Our starter will be oysters with an orange hollandaise sauce.  Along with our cheese plate, dessert will be a chocolate lava cake with white chocolate lava.  Thankfully, John and I had a late lunch or I would be famished at this point.

Now it's time to cook our market bounty.

Our Mise En Place
With Patrick's guidance, we all rolled up our sleeves and gladly take the role of sous chefs.

Prepping the Lava Chocolate Cake

Dropping the White Chocolate in the Batter
Patrick Shucking the Oysters; "Students" monitoring the Sweet Onions and Mashed Potatoes

Adding a little aperitif and wine to the mix, our camaraderie had solidified.

After shopping, learning, cooking and entertaining ourselves, the outcome:

Starter - Oysters with Orange Hollandaise Sauce
Entree - Duck with Sweet Onion Chutney, Vanilla Mashed Potatoes with Zucchini Flan
After Dinner Cheese Tray
Chocolate Lava Cake
Our previous anniversaries have always been anointed with a enjoyable dinner out.  But on this noteworthy occasion, the day of our 25th anniversary, an evening cooking class was just right for us and our new set of friends.

If you go to Paris and want to experience the class for yourself, here's the info:

The school is in the Montmartre area, close to Sacre Coeur:
21 rue Custine 75018 Paris – Metro: Jules Joffrin (line 12) or Chateau rouge (line 4)
Inquiries or phone +33 (0)1 42 55 70 59 (Paris time : Monday to Friday 10am-6pm).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Understanding Hemingway's Moveable Feast

One of the best days of my life happened on January 1, 2012.  It came on the heels of one of the best weeks in my life.  Recognizing it while it was happening took me completely off guard!  Usually I recognize these things in hindsight.  Cue the happy tears...
"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." - Ernest Hemingway
No, I was not lucky enough to live in Paris, but my husband and I immersed ourselves in the City of Lights celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary over the holidays.  We chose Paris not only for it's ever expected romantic appeal, but for all the new foodie adventures we would surely encounter.  It seemed obvious to us, Paris should to be our destination.

Take our first date.  John prepared lunch for me making a warming plate of spaghetti.  You've heard the term before, "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach."   That theory works on women too.  I knew from our very first date, he was the guy for me.  From that point forward, food has been one our major bonds.

Predictable as it may sound, Paris in a week lived up to all our expectations.  Paris winters are simply beautiful in all it's rainy glory; especially at night.

The Louvre and Musee D'Orsay are sights to behold.


Musee D'Orsay Dining Room

The smells of roasting chestnuts on every square, the stinky cheese wafting to passersby from the local Fromage shop and the aroma of a freshly baked baguette constantly teased my tummy.

Strolling local parks revealed elegant merry-go-rounds with delighted, bundled up children.

Fanciful chocolatiers are just as artistic as the finest painter in Montmartre.

Corner cafes lured us every afternoon for a lovely glass of Bordeaux.


You can see why this week ranks at the top of my best weeks ever lived list.

Other than being New Year's Day, what was so special that it made it one of my best days?  It was our last full day in Paris. Many things were closed.  We had already visited museums, stood under the Eiffel Tower, walked the length of the Champs Elysees, taken a cooking class and ate like there would be no tomorrow.  John and I decided to have no agenda on this day.  We just followed our hearts' desires.

This day started with standing at midnight on Pont Neuf over the Seine watching the Eiffel Tower sizzle at the stroke of 12.

We moved on to a late night glance of the Grand Opera followed by looking at the Christmas window displays at Printemps department store.

Slept in; what a treat.

Hilly Montmartre seemed to be the right place to spend our day.  We happened upon an artists fair near the Sacre Coeur.  So inspired by their work, we bought a piece for the kitchen.

Wandering deeper into the district with a violinist playing our soundtrack, we daydreamed together what it might be like to live in one of the fancy apartments.

Another charming cafe' beckoned us to enjoy the neighborhood with its spirits.  More strolling to the point of hunger.  We shared a burger, frites and an extraordinarily tasty roasted goat cheese salad. Everyone around us was as relaxed as we were.  Bonne Annee' (Happy New Year) we would hear.   What a perfect day I thought to myself. was to get even more perfect, John disappeared into a Fleurs shop only to come out with a sweet bouquet of flowers for moi!

25 years and it really is getting better all the time.  I'll carry 1/1/12 with me no matter where I am in life; my moveable feast.  1/1/12 proved to me to be just about as perfect as they come.  It also demonstrated it's possible for many more good days ahead.

Bonne Annee' mes amis!

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