Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dancing Into Fall

This is my young friend Katarina dancing joyfully in the mint-scented grass last night while cool winds blew fall into Southern Oregon. Rain was in the forecast, chill was in the air, and we celebrated the shift with our favorite thing. We cranked up the outside speakers and twirled, twisted and stomped til exhaustion to the musical mix she'd put together for me from her favorite dance tunes—18 high-octane gotta-boogie songs by artists ranging from The Who and The Police to Sublime and Bloc Party. Fueled by a little syrah and a lot of synergy that happens when two girls who love to dance get together, dusk turned to dark and the hours fell away and I didn't think too much about the fact that she's 40 years younger. Than I am.

Fall always dredges up that fading-into-old-age crap that's difficult to ignore when the flowers wither, the corn stalks rattle, the squash vines crumble, and the tomato and pepper plants shrink in dread of the soon-to-bite first frost. It's a little too easy to draw parallels with the waning hair color, the wrinkling skin, and the sagging unmentionables. In the garden, it won't be long before all but the insect-and-disease-affected plants will be tossed into the compost or ground up to plow right back into the garden from whence they came. Their energy doesn't vanish, though, it just changes. Their life current persists, and they'll return next year in other vibrant forms.

That's how I think about music and dancing—as current that persists and wells up in rhythm that feels like life itself moving. Switch on the right music, and it plays me. It plays Katarina, too, and my son Chris, and yoga teacher, Denise, and another young friend, Parker, and a few others I know who are blessed (some might say cursed) with the irresistible need to move to music. It is good to reaffirm that since I am undeniably in my own fall season, I can channel the unfathomable power of rhythm and dance to juice things up and keep the green going and going and going. Will it ever be gone? Not as long as I can hear and move and turn on the music. Loud.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chipotle, Southern Oregon Style

If the above looks like a pile of sun-dried dog do, skip on over to another blog. But if you recognize these units as amazingly flavorful freshly smoked dead-ripe jalapeno peppers— better known as chipotle— you've come to the right place. What you see is the result of about 70 days of Rogue Valley, Oregon sun and soil and 15-20 hours in a little Chief Smoker loaded with smoldering cherry wood. Ohmigod! Chipotles can be purchased, but according to Dave DeWitt's Chile Pepper Encyclopedia, they will be inferior to the genuine article, which in all humility, is what you see here. You gotta start with RED RIPE jalapenos, which I have never seen in grocery stores, but then I've always lived in Podunk, USA, beginning with Minot, North Dakota, and ending, happily, with small acreage outside of Rogue River, Oregon.

Green jalapenos are great, especially in pico de gallo and other salsas, when you can't wait for red ones, but they don't have the deep flavor and sweetness necessary for the quintessential chipotle. Some farmers' markets sell red jalapenos, or you can make a special request to a grower, as a friend did, to let the peppers ripen before picking. Best yet is to grow them yourself. If you have a climate comparable to the Rogue Valley (or Southern New Mexico), no problem!

PK is a pepper addict whose passion I've come by through osmosis. I use chipotle —and about a dozen other peppers—year-round in my own kitchen, and love giving chipotle peppers as a special gift to friends and family. Here's what a smoker load of about-to-be chipotle peppers looks like. The stems are removed, but that's it for prep. So pretty!

Once the peppers come out of the smoker, they are anywhere from brittle to slightly pliable. If they're still tacky, they should be stored in the freezer. I put most in glass jars. This year, the first batch wasn't out of the smoker for 10 seconds—we had a pent-up demand for chipotle, nerves were frayed—before I snared enough to stuff a pint jar, fill it with scalding water, and wait a few hours for those babies to rehydrate so I could make chipotle cubes.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Backyard Biking on Birdseye Creek Road

Cycle Oregon riders departed from their adventure yesterday, but I remain in the Mythical State of Jefferson, which is perfect because this is exactly where I want to be. Having 2,000 visiting cyclists in the region—and right here in the neighborhood—last week inspired reflection about the place I accidentally landed 30-some years ago. It made me appreciate home territory anew, and I looked with special fondness at my personal neighborhood workout hill—Birdseye (pronounced Birds-eee) Creek Road, classic State of Jefferson terrain, which is minutes from my backdoor. It's three miles uphill, down in a flash, and about 30 minutes max, start to finish. Doable even when I "don't have time" or "don't feel like it." But always a challenge.

I've burned enough calories on that hill in the past 25 years to equal several barrels of cabernet sauvignon and a gymnasium-sized slab of dark chocolate. (These are my major vices, but by no means my only ones.) It is a contest about what is going to prevail: my exercise or my excesses. So far I think, it's neck and neck. I eat and drink what I want and credit Birdseye hill (and yoga), with keeping me more or less in line.

I never tire of Birdseye Creek Road. It's a mini-topo trip through State of Jefferson bioregions, and with almost no traffic, even an aging but earnest biker like me can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells along the way. To get to Birdseye, I navigate .3 of a mile of Rogue River Highway, which is sometimes an annoyingly busy road, but still offers a good look at the Rogue Valley's claim to fame: the Rogue River.

Birdseye Creek Road is a right turn off the highway and takes a sweeping curve past the lower pasture of the Birdseye Creek Ranch, where cattle enjoy lush pasture. I've seen cattle in the eastern Oregon desert and worse, in feedlots. Those cattle can't imagine such luxury as this:

The road climbs to a higher pasture, still part of the original 360-acre Birdseye homestead, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and also for sale.

Already the terrain is drier and madrones and oaks dominate.

I love madrones and the mixed woodlands where they prevail. This time of year—late fall—after several hot dry months, their bark peels in characteristic fashion, and the forest smells fresh— sweet and astringent at the same time. If I walked in it, the forest duff would crackle and release sweet fragrant oils. Climb, climb, climb, and the hills close in and the creek can be seen and heard and the woods look like this:

And this—mixed pines, firs, big-leaf maple and much more:

I can't see worth a damn, so maybe my sense of smell is heightened. But I know that each of these patches along 3 miles of country road has its own distinct perfume. I suck it in on the way up, and catch snatches of it on the way down. Then I go home and eat chocolate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cycle Oregon- State of Jefferson!

I'm a Cycle Oregon wannabe, for sure. The big pulsating Power-bar-eating snake of 2,200 riders moved thru my State of Jefferson neighborhood today, and I couldn't resist cycling along part of the bike route. I had a noon meeting in Grants Pass and allowed time to ride the 10.5 miles from my home near Rogue River to the meeting place in time to change into civilian clothes and spare fellow Rotarians my spandexed thighs. En route I hoped to tuck into a pace line, put my head down, blur my legs into a spin, and reach Grants Pass in record time. And also pretend to be part of The Ride, of course.

Alas, the snake wasn't on the road yet. So my pretending had to be that the drivers who passed me, and who certainly knew to expect Cycle Oregon on this road, were in awe that this older broad was leading the pack! What a stud! I flashed cavalier smiles and did that cool finger wave that cyclists execute without removing their hands from the handlebars. On my way home, however, the snake was on the road, and I lamented those pace lines rocketing by in the opposite direction. Sigh. A sag wagon passed me and flashed a sign warning, "WRONG WAY!!!"
I yelled, "I live here!"

And you know what? On all kinds of levels, I'm glad I do. Take friends, for example. A few minutes later, I got a flat. I can't remember having had a flat in 20 years. I didn't have a spare tube, tools, or anything else that I needed except a cell phone. A few minutes later, a rescue was in motion. I can think of a half dozen people I could call who would come to my aid at a moment's notice, and one jumped into immediate action. That's a huge benefit of living in the same place for 30-some years. You can count on people when you need them. And they can count on you.

But then living in the State of Jefferson has it's own rewards. It is a West Coast region that is seriously different from images that the words "West Coast" conjure. PR folks call it a "state of mind." It is mostly rural, although we have a number of small cities and towns, some of which are culturally sophisticated and upscale. It is a mixed bag philosophically and politically, although we're historically more red than blue, and there are quite a few who are stockpiling guns. However, we share a common love of forests, rivers, mountains, and the rich but quirky agricultural scene that's developing in place of the historic logging and fishing industries—everything from bison ranches to organic farms to the ubiquitous vineyards. There are places here that time has touched only lightly, and just about anywhere in the S of J, you can be in wilderness within 30 minutes.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Making a Mean Marinara- updated

Updated August 23, 2015
Email subscribers, please click on the blog title to get to the website where photos look better and text is easier to read. 
There's a lot going on here. Fresh cucumber/sweet onion salad, zucchini noodles, balsamic glaze drizzled over all, but the star of the show? Thick and rich homemade marinara.
We could about fill a bathtub with the tomatoes from our garden.  We could take turns lolling in the red, lush and lovely Romas, Celebrities, Early Girls and Brandywines to convert them to mush in preparation for making marinara. The sticky sweetness would drip from our limbs, and we could funnel some of the juices into our upturned and smiling mouths before diverting them into pots to boil and bubble into wondrous sauce for eggplant Parmesan, lasagna, spaghetti and so on to bring summer back during the inevitable dark, dank, dreary months.
Romas are the best choice for marinara as they are meaty with not as much juice to cook down.
But don't worry. You don't have to watch for hair or scabs in your spaghetti sauce, should you be invited to dinner. My best friend in the kitchen—the Cuisinart food processor—does all this squishing and smashing in a hot minute.
Process thoroughly to puree the tomato skins, which you do
NOT need to remove. Keep the fiber and the vitamins.
I ignore recipes when making marinara, especially any that require plunging tomatoes into boiling water first to remove the skins. DO NOT DO THIS! It adds immeasurably to the work and makes no difference in the end. Except for you've salvaged for your sauce all the fiber and flavor in the tomato skins.

Here's a rough guide on how to take advantage of tomato season to make a mean marinara for dinner and also the freezer. I'm not being coy with the "rough" stuff. So many recipes are approximations. When you're dealing with fresh garden produce, either from your own backyard or from farmers' markets, exact amounts depend on the cook's creativity. (Except, of course, when you're canning and absolutely must adhere precisely.) So here's how I make marinara, and you can adapt to fit whatever you have on hand.

Rich Delicious Marinara using Fresh Tomatoes


  • 12-15  pounds of fresh tomatoes, mostly romas, cored and pureed
  • 6-7 ounces of prepared basil pesto, without cheese. In the absence of pesto, process in a food processor 10-12 cloves of garlic, 2 packed cups of fresh basil, 1/2 + cup of olive oil, a 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1/4 cup of pine nuts or walnuts 
  • 2 large winter onions, chopped fine
  • a teaspoon each of finely crushed dried fennel seeds, oregano, thyme and rosemary
  • 2-3 finely chopped jalapeno peppers, seeds removed, if you relish a little hotness. Or you could add pepper flakes to taste.
  • salt and pepper to taste, using kosher, sea, or smoked salt. Smoked salt adds a whole new dimension.
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey, if needed
A cheat: If you lack the patience or inclination to simmer anything five or six hours, add a small can or two of tomato paste early on. It'll still be a great marinara.

Start with dead-ripe fresh tomatoes, the redder the better. Roma types are best, but I also use round tomatoes that need to be used. Rinse, then cut off the stem end and core. Squeeze out seeds (and a lot of juice), tear or cut once or twice and load up the food processor. Process until there's nothing but air-fluffed tomato puree, then dump into your cooking pot. Often I have a couple pots going at the same time. Keep adding pureed tomatoes until the pot (uncovered, of course) is full.  Cook at low/medium heat until the volume is reduced by half.  Stir often to make sure it's not sticking. When the volume is about half add the rest of the vegetables and seasonings.
This is A LOT of pureed whole tomatoes! I had to scoop three 
cups out so it didn't spill over the sides. This large deep stainless
steel pan has become my favorite for making marinara.
That's it. Simmer until it is reduced by at least half the original volume. This can take hours. There should be very little watery stuff at the top. I always have to tinker with the seasonings near the end. Taste and adjust to your satisfaction. What we don't eat for dinner, I freeze flat in quart bags.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bike ride with iPod - Ghostland Observatory

These are among my favorite people to bike with, and my favorite human beings in general: PK, of course, and Dave & Gail Frank. There they are posing by the Covered Bridge in Wimer, not really a town or even a village, but today, anyway, a lively locale with a packed and well-studied public bulletin board advertising 42 free laying hens, three free horses, goats-for-nothing, and more! A sad commentary on the rotten economic times, of course, but so rural and endearing nonetheless. I love the rural life and am sorry that so many are in distress. More on that another time. Today we reveled in our good health and good fortune to be here now and rolling along the dips and turns of East and West Evans Creek and Pleasant Creek roads.

We pedaled an easy 27 miles in glorious early fall weather through the Evans Valley. It was fine. But even without my husband and friends, I would have relished the outing because of this unit: my personal training instrument, my beloved musical companion, my very own dance partner - the iPod! This little number has revolutionized my workout life, and maybe even my life overall. I plug this baby in and dance on the bike. I dance in the garden. And in the kitchen. And on the trail. Almost anywhere, even if it's just to tap my feet. Today C.C. Adock got me pumping hard uphill just because - Y'all'd think she'd be good 2 me. And Dire Straits and Money for Nothing always get me going. No matter where I am or what I'm doing, I have to dance to certain music. And i mean HAVE to. Unfortunately, I don't get that many opportunities to actually DANCE, so dancing on the bike is an acceptable alternative to cavorting with a human being, namely PK. The playlist displayed is one I put together for my young friend, Katarina, who loves dancing as much as I do. If you love to dance, I mean LOVE, you oughta try these numbers, in addition to those displayed: Stealin All Day, C.C. Adcock; Pump it Up, Elvis Costello; A Little Bit of Riddim, Michael Franti; Moondance, Van Morrison; We're Only Going to Live So Long, Alejandro Escovedo; Life During Wartime, and MANY others by the Talking Heads. And Midnight Voyage and Sad, Sad City by Ghostland Observatory.

I'm sure that the two wildly talented young guys who are Ghostland Observatory would be shocked, perhaps delighted? to learn that a woman 3 times their age rocks out to their music, which is not at all like what she grew up with. But one of the greatest developments of the past decade is the erasure of lines between what music belongs to one generation or another. If I can listen to Ghostland Observatory on Austin City Limits, which I did, then download my faves from iTunes, then transfer to my iPod and rock out on the bike, woohoo! I love it. The songs listed are current favorites. I have more. Many more.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

It's not cancer.

If you live long enough, there will come a time when you await a call from your doc regarding test results, and one of the results could be that you have cancer. PK turned 60 in June, and he is fortunate to have escaped this drama until now.
A week ago he had a routine physical. He's been worried that "something's wrong" because he's so damn skinny, which means he's worrying about having cancer. He is skinny, that bastard, while I wrestle with adipose. But he doesn't have cancer. That was confirmed today when his primary care FNP called with the good news that he has a kidney stone. Compared with cancer, a kidney stone is like learning you have to eat potatoes for a week rather than learning that you have to eat shit forever.
And when Mr. Kennedy learned he had brain cancer last year, he became one of the millions whose fate was not much changed by the cancer war. Despite billions that have been spent, the death rate from most cancers barely budged. New York Times, Sept. 4, 2009
But back to the beginning. A routine physical. A clean bill of health declared—or surmised. Then, a few days later, a confirmation that his test results were "all normal". And then, a few days later, an urgent notification that blood in the urine was discovered and an appointment for a CAT scan would be made for him the following day. And so he went to the hospital and was slipped into the CAT scanner for a few minutes, at a cost of about $1,300, of which we will pay a $750 deductible regardless of paying over $1,000 each and every month for private health insurance. But you do these things and pay this money because it could be cancer.

We go right to the Internet. There are no good options for blood in the urine, especially for a man of his age. Bladder, kidney, or prostate cancer. It could be a bladder infection, or a few other non life-threatening and unlikely options. We zero in on the idea that maybe he's pressed his privates into bicycle seats so often, including a 25-mile ride a few hours before he had the CAT scan, that blood was somehow forced into his urinary tract. We clung to this idea. But we saw not a word about kidney stones on the Internet.

So what do you do? You have the CAT scan. You await test results. You put your life on hold. If the call comes, and the news is bad, your life changes. Your focus is directed entirely at battling the cancer, which, of course, is a battle in which humans have not gained much ground since statistics have been compiled. I've seen too much cancer already, and I know this.

I'm writing on the same day that we learned the test results. (If the FNP had the results yesterday, why didn't she call?) I'm writing now because I know that by tomorrow, I'll have almost forgotten. Just like I've almost forgotten the time that I had "post menopausal bleeding" and was threatened with one of those horrible uterine biopsies, but didn't have it for reasons that include the availability of detailed online info about almost anything medical. And then there's every mammogram. And every Pap smear. The body can turn bad at anytime, and as we age, it most certainly will. But we hope later rather than sooner. And we hope it isn't cancer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sunflower Love

Here's PK snuggling up to some of our proudest specimens. The best thing about this garden forest? It was planted by BIRDS, and lots of them. Come spring, sunflowers will once more leap from the soil, and I will again transplant most into groupings, as I did with this bunch. Since the original plants had cross-pollinated like crazy, I had no idea what they'd look like. They did not disappoint. And the birds are jubilant.Here are a two from the clouds of American and lesser goldfinches that descend, chirruping in glee, upon our garden everyday. These seed-eaters adore the sunflowers, but are haphazard about consuming each and every seed. The ones they drop all over the place turn into next year's stars. About a third of our large garden is bird-planted or wind-planted, especially lettuce, which appears in random patterns in sometimes-shocking sizes:
This succulent head is nearly 24-inches across and tasted as wonderful as it looks. Dill is another garden commodity that we no longer plant because it emerges as if propelled by partying earthworms and seeded by rockin' robins: And flowers? I still plant a lot of annuals and perennials, but this year the landscape was dominated by rangy four-foot tall volunteer marigolds, which bear scant resemblance to their hybrid predecessors, and reliable four o'clocks, which jumped in with enthusiasm.
But back to the garden rock stars. The acrobatic finches hang down to satisfy their insatiable avian appetites.
The finches have a darting and undulating flight habit, dodging amidst the hummingbirds, who plummet and soar and hover and thrill while extracting nectar from the asters, cosmos, marigolds, and more. Every now and then, blue jays invade and intimidate. But overall, it is an ecstatic scene, and standing quietly in the morning garden is a deep pleasure. But wait. There's more!This sunflower is over 16 inches across. The blue jays covet it, chasing the finches off. Probably the seeds are too large for the finches anyway. This variety is the only sunflower we planted from seed. PK chose it because of its density and hugeness of the seedhead. Later he'll hammer what remains of the dried seedheads to the fenceposts as easy pickings for the birds when they really need a boost. However, here's how these depressed and frustrated sunflowers look now:That's right. They are sunflowers that can NOT follow the sun. How pathetic. They are so heavy, that except for the one mutant, they're unable to adore the sun as sunflowers are programmed to do. It will be interesting next year to see if any of this variety volunteers. I was surprised to see this one come back from 2008:One single shaggy sunflower plant (with numerous flowers) emerged about 20 yards from where it grew last year, and I am so happy! It makes a great cut flower,and the bees enjoy it, but I'm not sure about the finches, jays, chickadees, nuthatches and such, which are more attuned to the "garden" variety. Fall is upon us. The sunflowers will dwindle, but until the end of October, the birds will rule the garden. And this is what will sustain them: Thank you, sunflowers.