Category: California

Supreme Jam Sesh at Summer Kitchen

Today I got to put on a shirt and apron at a restaurant and make jam. Doesn’t sound all that thrilling, but for a wannabe it was SO. THRILLING. As my sister’s friend Jeff would say, I looked very profesh.

Looking like a professional

Here’s the back story: my husband has a cousin who lives in Oakland and runs a lovely little restaurant in the heart of Berkeley. She is a trained pastry chef and worked at the famed Chez Panisse. Her husband was an executive chef at restaurants in downtown San Francisco. Together they started Summer Kitchen and Bake Shop. The food is locally sourced and prepared fresh daily. Soups, salads, pizzas, sandwiches–all delicious.

We were visiting a couple of weeks ago and I was talking about how great it is to live so close to where the produce is grown all year round; especially fruit! I told them I had made a batch of strawberry jam, which I love to give as gifts to good friends and the kids’ teachers. They said they would love to be able to sell jam to their customers so I pounced at the chance to make some for them. The issue, of course, is that I don’t have a commercial kitchen, nor a cottage industry license (which you can get here) and I also can’t work, being a resident alien. My cousin said I was welcome to come up to the restaurant any time and make some jam with her. So I did!

I brought two kinds of berries: the traditional strawberry, which is a crowd favourite, and the olallieberry. “The olalliewhat?” you say? The olallieberry is a cross between a Logan berry and a Young berry. They look similar to blackberries, but they aren’t as big and they are slightly sweeter, closer to that of a raspberry. The hybrid was officially named and released in 1950. They have a short season and are only available for a couple of weeks in June. I got an early batch from Gizdich Ranch down in Watsonville. If you ever wondered where your berries come from in the dead of winter (hello, Canada, I’m talking to YOU), then wonder no more: they come from Watsonville, California where fields of berries stretch beyond what the eye can see.

Olallieberries

I made one batch of jam with Quickset, my favourite sugar/pectin mix from Redpath, but it was the only bag I still had from Canada. So we made our own version coming up with a good ratio of fruit to sugar and pectin for the remaining batches and I think the jam set quite nicely…I’m testing out a jar of olallieberry jam tomorrow morning (okay, maybe tonight) to see how the sugar/pectin mix worked with the fruit. If it works then I have a new formula and recipe for my jam since the old formula involved shipping the sugar/pectin mix from Canada, which is not exactly cost effective.

Sugar and berry mixture

I’m going to think of other combinations to mix with the fruit since it seems to be quite trendy (balsamic this, and pepper that). I’m a fairly simple girl when it comes to jam. I like to slather the jam on a slice of fresh baked bread or crunchy toast. Either way, the jam makes it taste that much better.

I’ve become one of those purveyors of “small batch, locally sourced, homemade [fill-in-the-blank-here]” but I don’t mind. In fact, I quite like it! Who knows? Maybe this could be the start of something really sweet.

Jars and jars of strawberry and ollalieberry jam

Ignoring my blog

I’ve been ignoring my blog. Not really on purpose, but moreso because I don’t want to keep feeding it. I’ve been feeding Instagram and Facebook a lot in the last four months and I must say, social media has an insatiable appetite! I kind of did it to myself–a little over a month ago I took up a year-long challenge to post a photo a day. There have been days when I’ve struggled to think of a decent picture to post (just see the one of my messy kitchen) and it’s only been a month! What am I to do for the next 11 months?!

But I also felt like there wasn’t much I wanted to write about that was related to homemaking, baking, cooking, decor, fitness, etcetera, etcetera. I’m actually waiting for a Duncan Hines cake to come out of the oven right now, so I figured I’d kill some time writing an entry. The cake is for the kids’ graduation. All three are graduating from a milestone year at school. Next year they will all be at different schools and as much as we all commiserate about the demands of parenthood, schlepping them hither and yon to school, daycare, hockey, swimming, blah, blah, blah, I know it will pass in the proverbial blink of an eye.

We are also days away from heading back east for the summer, which means now seems like a good time to reflect on our relocation to Northern California. It’s been almost five months to the day since the Big Move. I won’t lie to you–it’s been difficult for all of us in different ways. I think the biggest challenge for me has been the separation from our family and close friends, which won’t come as a surprise to many of you. I’ve also been really uncomfortable with unemployment. I managed to work remotely for the first three months, which helped immensely with the transition. Had it not been for a good friendship that I have struck up with a fellow Canadian (from Ottawa), I’m not sure I’d be in as good a place as I am now. We are in constant contact without being needy (at least, I hope I’m not!). We go on long walks and hikes regularly and our 11-year-olds have become good buddies.

I also joined the schools Gardening Club and purchased a summer “plot” even though I won’t be here to tend to it. I have made friends with some of the moms at the school who are fellow Garden Clubbers, which has also been a great comfort.

Those amazing Canadian Moms In Silicon Valley have also been my saviours. We are a mixed bunch at various stages of expat-ness, but we have our motherhood and national pride in common and that is a tie that binds us. A big shout out to Kathryn for being my life ring in the choppy seas of relocating.

Finding my “tribe” has kept me afloat on this crazy adventure. So, too, has my husband. I remind myself regularly that I’m not the only one who has had to make adjustments. And yet I feel a great sense of responsibility to each member of the family to make sure they are good, physically, mentally and socially.

Highlights of the Big Move: 

Hiking the Quicksilver Foothills (literally in our neighbourhood backyard)

One of the nearby trails I have hiked a few times

Gardening Club at the elementary school

All ready for a fun garden activity with the kids

Exploring the region (oceans and mountains)

Postcard-worthy shot of the Carmel-to-Big Sur coastline along Highway 1

Time…to cook and bake

A one dish dinner that was better than anything we could have got at a restaurant
The finished product

Writing letters home to my friends

I don’t have a photo for this one, because, who really needs to see the envelopes and stamps? But what I DO love is finding the perfect card for the right person. I think many of them would be copyrighted so I’m not about to photograph them and post them on my blog (although who are we kidding? is anyone of any import really going to read this and report me??). I have found solace in putting pen to paper and writing whatever pops into my head and sending it off for my friends to receive in the mail. Maybe I will singlehandedly revive the lost art of letter writing, or maybe not. I just know I’ll keep doing it because it makes me feel good.

Now I’m thinking about my next “move” (no, we aren’t moving to another city) when we return from our summer vacation. I will look for more volunteer opportunities, possibly putting my communications and writing skills to use. I am also considering some self improvement through online courses; maybe I can still learn something as I grow long in the tooth. And of course I need to keep up with my fitness; I still can’t seem to accept the mushy middle that is my mummy tummy, but I’m not willing to give up chocolate and chips, not gonna happen. So I’m going to have to devise another plan to feel good about my body. I think that’s plenty for me to contemplate over the summer.

Okay, the cake is done and it’s late so that’s the end of this post. Besides, I have to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive up to Berkeley to make a big batch of jam….more on that later!!!

My First Container Garden

I love to grow vegetables. I’m not necessarily good at it, but I get a lot of satisfaction from planning, preparing and planting the seeds and seedlings at the start of the growing season and then watching them grow over the summer. Back home, that whole exercise lasted approximately five to six months, tops. Here in Northern California the growing season never starts and stops. In fact, they have a saying here that there are only two seasons here: brown and green.

Fresh produce can be found in farmers’ fields, farmers’ markets and grocery stores year-round. There are certain times that are better than others to grow what might be referred to as “cold weather” crops and “hot weather” crops. Consider that in Toronto, Zone 5, cold weather crops constitute planting and harvesting lettuce, peas and radishes in early summer and warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are harvested during and after the heat of the summer, followed by root vegetables and squash as we move into Fall.

I think the same is true for Northern California, except the calendar starts a lot earlier–like, 2 months earlier–and you don’t ever stop planting–you can keep planting and growing vegetables, you just have to know what grows when in this zone, which happens to be Zone 10.

According to plantmaps.com, the first frost shows up around the beginning of December and the last frost is around the end of February. That’s a full 10 MONTHS of growing!!!

Many people here have fruit and even nut trees in their gardens–orange, lemon, lime, cherry, apricot, prune, grape vines, walnuts, even pomegranates. In fact, before this valley was turned into a bedroom community and tech hub it was covered in acres and acres of fruit orchards.

Photo of orchard in the Santa Clara Valley

I did the stereotypical thing and bought an orange tree within weeks of moving here. Even the woman at the nursery knew it–she said the firs thing people do when they first move here from a cold climate is buy a fruit tree. I guess I’m that predictable. It’s a dwarf navel orange variety, which means I can keep it in a giant planter.

Next I took out some books from the library on gardening in California and planting a container garden. They were good inspiration and helped me reel in my romantic images of a garden straight out of a Nancy Meyers movie set.

I decided to buy a bunch of light-weight containers, some cheap plastic ones, and a few more expensive resin ones. What’s the difference, other than the price point, you ask? They are both plastic, but true plastic is fairly flimsy and cracks easily, as I learned when one of them fell out of my car right after I bought it. The resin ones I got are a moulded plastic, equally light weight, but they seem to be a little more durable and sturdy. I made sure all of the pots had drainage holes in the bottom.

I also bought a few large bags of raised garden bed and planter mix, but it didn’t appear to have much if any soil in it. So I went back to the garden centre and asked. I was on the right track but needed to amend the mix with potting soil.

The helpful garden centre guy also recommended using some vegetable fertilizer. Boy did it stink something fierce! I added a small amount to the soil and mix combo before putting the plants in. I left the bag outside by my tools only to discover that some animal (possibly the four-legged one that lives in our house) got into it, and spilled its contents on the ground. It is so ferociously malodorous, I can’t imagine anyone or anything, enjoying something that smelly.

I know I might have gotten too ambitious with my plants, but since I don’t really have a garden to call my own here, I figured I could handle about a dozen pots.

Here’s what I got:

San Marzano tomatoes

Grape tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Shishito peppers

Strawberries

Chives

And here are the seeds I planted:

Italian flat leaf parsley

Sweet basil

Golden beets

Nantes carrots

Giant sunflowers

Heavenly Blue morning glory

Nasturtium

Oh! And lil guy picked out a gerbera daisy, so we got one of those too.

I still have three pots laying fallow waiting to see which kind of vegetable they will host. I wish I could grow sugar snap peas, but I fear I might be a little late starting them now because soon it will get hot and there will definitely be no rain. Lil guy also picked out sugar baby watermelon seeds, but there really is no garden to speak of with lots of sunshine where a vine like that could grow. The entire backyard, while large is mostly hardscaped or covered in ivy and tall trees that throw a lot of shade.

I’ve got my eye on one spot on the north side of the house that seems to get continuous sun throughout the day. It would make a good spot for a raised bed, but it’s super close to the house, which is probably not a good thing–someone told me there are things called fruit rats here and I don’t want to have any close encounters with those.

So here are some photos of my work-in-progress container garden (and one little bed). It looks a little sad right now, but once the foliage fills out, I think it will look pretty darn good, and those veggies are going to taste delicious!

My little container garden collection–and orange tree.
Seeds by the little garden bed where they were planted

 

 

Friday Fitness

The sun was shining this morning so there was no excuse to keep me from exercising. So I pulled on the spandex and quick-dry, laced up the runners and headed out with my fellow Canuck for a looooooooong walk along a path that follows a river to Almaden “Lake” (by “lake” I mean a man-made reservoir that collects all the rain water that flows down from the foothills in the surrounding area).

Once we got there, here was the view looking back towards where we came from:

Almaden “Lake” on a sunny day in March

All told, we walked about 10 kilometres there and back, but I kept a running tally going for the day until I sat down for dinner and started typing this. When I checked my pedometer I was pleasantly surprised to see this:

Giving Forest Gump a run for his money

I would LOVE to burn over 500 calories a day EVERY day! Can you imagine??? All I have to do is walk or run ten kilometres! That should be a cinch! (not)

I admit, my puppies were barking a bit after that walk. My arthritic foot with the bunion, especially. But as they say, “no pain, no gain.” Or in this case, “no weight loss.

The only problem with that is, as I have said before, I am my own worst enemy. I got in the car and this is what I proceeded to do:

Damn you, chocolate!

So there go 200 of those 500 calories.

But I persevered. I had healthy snacks today on my walk and I had a glass of red wine with the most amazing dinner. E.V.E.R.

Best. Meal. Ever.

That’s spaghetti with white truffle oil, roasted garlic, fresh campari tomatoes, wilted baby spinach, fresh arugula and shaved parmesan cheese. I think I could eat this meal every day if I had to. It’s the white truffle oil and roasted garlic that does it for me. I think I am part Italian or it’s somewhere buried deep in my genetic code.

Tomorrow’s project: container gardening. It might not help me burn 500 calories, but I’ll definitely get something out of it for all the effort I put in. We got all the planters, soil, fertilizer, seeds and plants. Now we just have to put it all together and we have an instant vegetable garden! I’ll post pictures soon…

Not your average walk in the park

One of the advantages of living in California is the weather. On average, San Jose has 300 days of sunshine in a year. That is astonishing to someone like me who is a weather-obsessed Canadian, used to grey, rainy, snowy days for about five months of the year.

Yesterday was a prime example of that sunny weather. It was perfectly clear–blue skies, a soft, warm breeze and temperatures hovering in the mid-twenties (it was 76 fahrenheit, but I have no idea how to convert from fahrenheit to celsius–yet!). This kind of weather makes it possible to spend a lot of time outdoors. For some that means lounging on a patio sipping a cold drink and reading a good book. For me, it means communing with nature (to a point). I met up with a friend and we decided to go for a walk. Until yesterday that meant wandering through the neighbourhood critiquing the houses and landscaping, but we decided to change things up and find a trail. Our neighbourhood backs on to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. These foothills are covered in hiking trails. On any given day we have seen deer, quail and wild turkeys. If you’re lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view), you might also see coyotes, rattlesnakes, bobcats and wild pigs. We picked a trailhead that took us to the top of our neighbourhood and gave us a great view of our surroundings.

View of San Jose from Webb Canyon Trail

I thought it would be a quick up and down, and then we’d head back home. Alas, no, we decided to take another trail. I have no complaints. The fields and forests are all picture postcard worthy. We even saw a gaggle of wild turkeys! We didn’t actually stray that far from our neighbourhood, but the foothills can be deceiving–the ups, downs, twists and turns can take you to all sorts of hidden corners and get you so turned around you can lose your internal compass. (that’s when the sun really comes in handy!)

A bucolic view of the trail and surrounding wilderness

Our morning jaunt through the neighbourhood turned into a two and a half hour, 12 kilometre hike through the hills.

Lessons learned for next time: bring water, bring snacks and bring some pocket money–although there were no stores in the immediate vicinity! And definitely remember sunscreen and a hat, which I did.

I also think my kids would have loved this hike, even if they do complain about hiking when we have taken them. Just remember: bring food and water if you are planning on bringing kids.

I think this will become my new favourite recreational activity–it’s not too intense, it’s social, it’s great exercise and the vistas are absolutely stunning.

Yes, it snows in California!

This morning I woke up to the site of snow in the not-too-distant foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, and on the east side of the Bay, MORE snow on the Santa Teresa foothills, which are part of the Sierra Nevada. At first I thought I was hallucinating, that I was having some sort of Freudian episode, pining for my land of snow and ice (which, ironically, is having a bit of a warm spell right now). But it was real. Unfortunately it was too far away for me to snap a photo, but the newspapers and television stations covered it aplenty!

Here’s a photo of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, which is about an hour northeast of where we live.

Lick Observatory Mt. Hamilton
Photo Credit: Gary Reyes/East Bay News Group

Contrary to popular belief, it gets quite cool in Northern California during the “winter” months. I still haven’t mastered the conversion from celsius to fahrenheit (and I may never), but I can tell you it dips down to nearly zero celsius overnight and warms up somewhere between the low to mid teens by the afternoon. I have no complaints about the sunshine–there seems to be an abundance of it. But sometimes I like the variation in weather and don’t mind a rainy day or the sight of clouds hanging low in the foothills. Wet weather here lulls people into a false sense of security, because the truth is there is never enough water. I drive past reservoirs and they all look desperately low. I see trucks from the Santa Clara Valley Water Authority driving about with workers checking on the sluices of the creeks that run through residential neighbourhoods, but there isn’t much to check. The creeks are barely a trickle most of the time.

At this time of the year the hills and trees are a vibrant green, drinking up every drop of water that falls. The birdsong is a beautiful sound to wake up to in the morning. I am particularly fond of listening to the hummingbirds banter with each other. We also have many birds of prey and some of them like to perch high atop the tall pines that adorn our backyard. Their distinctive piercing cry drives the dog crazy and he runs back and forth across the yard growling and barking from his land-bound posting.

The vegetation is varied and interesting and I hope to snap some more photos to share with you. I have no idea how to garden in this climate, but I’m going to try. So far I’ve purchased a dwarf navel orange tree. The woman at the nursery told me EVERYONE who moves here does that, so I guess I’m not that original. I’ve planted it in a giant planter so that we can take it with us should we decide to move. I’ve also planted a tomato plant, some basil and chives. I’d love to grow more vegetables, but it’s early days. Spring doesn’t really start until March here, so I’ve got some time to do the research, plan and prepare a kick ass container garden.

With that I can now fade off to sleep dreaming about Meyer lemons, fresh figs and rosemary bushes that never die!!!

If you’ve got any advice on what vegetables I should try to grow here, I’m open to suggestions!

 

54 Days….(but who’s counting???)

It’s late on a Sunday night. We just got home after a day spent driving up to Sonoma County to watch our eldest play a hockey game. We drove to Santa Rosa where I had visions of a scorched-earth landscape after last Fall’s devastating fires. But there was no apocalyptic scenery, just bucolic rolling hills with homes tucked into their sides and grazing cattle dotting the landscape. I guess we didn’t drive far enough into the countryside. We did, however, see plenty of signs in storefronts thanking First Responders for their help.

We made a day of it, packing a lunch and spending the afternoon at the Charles M Schulz Museum. We read all about how Charlie Brown and Snoopy came to be. We found out what “Sparky” (Schulz’s nickname) would eat every morning, what his office looked like and even how prominent hockey figured in his life. Snoopy’s Home Ice is right beside the museum, so we didn’t have very far to travel to the hockey game!

On the drive up, I saw signs for many of the dairy and produce companies whose products I see in the supermarkets here. I must say, it’s nice to know your milk, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables come from nearby. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a climate where you can produce food all year round. The biggest worry right now is the lack of rain. California has always struggled with water shortages and droughts. But as far as I can tell, the farmers still manage to get fruit and vegetables to market. It remains to be seen if the dry spell we’ve been having will result in a crisis.

My latest crisis of conscience is about where we decided to live–this is the first time I have moved in nearly 17 years. In the last week I have vacillated about where we have chosen to live–in the suburbs. Did we pick the right neighbourhood? Is it too far from amenities? Is it too quiet? Is it too great a commute for my husband? Should we have stuck with the big city instead of the suburbs? Will our kids fit in at the schools? The good news is we are renting, which means if we feel this isn’t the right fit for us, there is nothing preventing us from relocating again. The bad news is if it doesn’t work out, it means uprooting the kids yet again and having to resettle ourselves yet again. I am not much for a nomadic life. I like my creature comforts, I like to decorate and garden and make my home cozy and inviting. That’s hard to do when you feel like you are a visitor staying in someone else’s home. But this line of thinking is all a bit premature; after all we have only been here for 54 days. But who’s counting?

 

 

New Year, New Chapter in Life

Well, this is definitely a big one. I wish I had a good idiom to open this post–something from a revered monk or a world renowned scientist, but I don’t. So I’ll tell it like it is: we moved clear across the continent to California. At first blush, the decision didn’t seem that difficult; who can resist California?!?! Sunshine, ocean, mountains, and did I mention sunshine all year round???

But shortly after the euphoria of the opportunity subsided, reality set in: uprooting our family, packing up our worldly possessions, bidding farewell to our family and friends and everything we’ve ever known to take a chance on a new job in a new place in Trumpland. There were many days and nights of anxiety, misgivings, tears and even terror. But we faced them with bravery and a sense of adventure with the knowledge that home will always be home. And the home we make with our kids will always be their home because we’ll be there with them.

We have, for the most part, settled into a routine in our new abode. The kids are in school, they still have hockey and we still go to Costco! The perks, at least for the kids, include wearing shorts and riding a bike to school every day. The difference is we have to factor in three hours before picking up the phone to call friends and family.

I know it will take time to adjust, make friends, create a community and make it feel like home. I’m not the most patient person so I will have to remind myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day. In the meantime I am enjoying seeing and hearing hummingbirds every single day, riding my bike with the kids to and from school, exploring the different towns in the Bay area and learning to live like a Californian.