Thursday, January 14, 2021

Autumn Cuisine

 

Farfalle with shrimp and roasted bell pepper drizzled with herb infused olive oil

What a start to the new year it has been! I'm still a bit shaken, shocked but not surprised. Unfortunately, my anxiety has flared up again after I was able to get it under control during the holidays.

Cooking has always calmed me. Cutting up vegetables, measuring out the spices, trying out new recipes, changing old dishes into smething new and exciting helps me to forget everything else for at least a short time. I usually listen to some music while cooking - sometimes it's soothing, calming music, sometimes it's fast and I want to dance - so I'm standing in front of my stove swinging my hips!

Lemon chicken with orzo and leeks

Autumn arrives rather late in my corner of the world and then lingers well into December. The food is changing from the rather light summer fare to heartier dishes.

One of the most wonderful things about fall is the abundance of vegetables available at the farmers market. One of the vendors offers an interesting variety of squash and zucchini, among them the Eight-ball zucchini, a small round zucchini that you can stuff with all kinds of wonderful food and flavor.


Every morning I get the morning briefing of the New York Times in my inbox and it always links to one recipe. Some of them I don't care for, but some I want to try out. We love brussels sprouts and when the NYT published a tasty sounding recipe I had to make it. It is easy to make, only has a few ingredients (I skipped the honey because I just don't like it), is wonderfully delicious and quickly became a favorite in our household.

Crisp gnocchi with brussels sprouts and brown butter

Of course Thanksgiving is in autumn. That was a different story this year. Not only was it the first Thanksgiving without our daughter, we also couldn't celebrate with our friends. Usually we go to a friend's house and celebrate with her and her huge family. This Thanksgiving was a lot quieter and since we don't really like turkey we skipped on that as well. I wasn't in the mood for cooking an elaborate meal anyway. Luckily, Trader Joe's saved the day with their tasty beef en croute and sweet potato gnocchi in sage butter. I just had to thaw the beef for 24 hours, throw it in the oven and make the gnocchi in the pan. Easy peasy - and surprisingly delicious. Beef it up (excuse the pun) with a bottle of really good red wine and you have a lovely Thanksgiving dinner.


There are a couple more pasta and meat dishes I at least want to mention here without getting into more detail:

Creamy spinach and mushroom tortellini with caramelized onions


Sausage and peppers pasta with broccoli


Loaded Italian sausage


Balsamic chicken with mushrooms and couscous



One kind of food I shouldn't forget - soup. Now I am not very good at making delicious soups; good soup can be quite time intensive to make. We often have soup on the days that I am at work (either that or leftovers) and usually it's store-bought soup that I spruce up a little bit. Trader Joe's has an organic tomato and roasted red bell pepper soup (that is also low sodium) that by itself is very tasty. Here is how I change it a little bit: I stir minced ginger into sour cream and drizzle pumpkin seeds with good olive oil. Then I spoon a big dollop of the ginger sour cream in the soup and top it with the pumpkin seeds. It is a very satisfying meal.


What's for dessert? you might ask. Simple - fresh pineapple guavas from the garden. They also make a great snack.


I hope you enjoyed this culinary post. If there is a dish or two that you are interested in the recipe, let me know. It will become a future post.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

Looking Back

 

Only a few more hours and 2020 will be history. What a weird and strange year it has been. While this was not the worst year in my life - there were years far worse than this - it certainly was the most unique.

Much has been said about 2020 and I don't want to waste your time with repeating the same old sentiments about the virus and its consequences. The circus about the election still hasn't stopped. The life of too many people has been disrupted in a terrible way.

When I look back at the year I am surprised how quickly it passed, even though there were times when we thought nothing was moving. Despite stay-at-home orders and lockdowns I had more work than before. The new situation of teaching online had its fair share of challenges, but also many opportunities. While preparing classes was taking a lot longer, teaching was still a positive experience. It forced me to keep an open mind, to learn from my mistakes, to see what worked and what didn't and make amendments. It was interesting and exhausting at the same time. I was able to offer new classes which added to my work load, but boy! did I like it!

My Esty store also took off this year in a way I hadn't experienced before. While at the beginning of the year it was mainly Valentine's cards that I sold, customers were asking for hand knitted socks once the pandemic was under way. I knitted 68 pairs of socks for the store alone, plus some more for friends, famiy and myself. Add to this some hats, scarves, mittens and photo cards you can see that I was busy.

Since there was no way we could go anywhere I spent a lot of time in the garden whenever I could. I was digging and planting, changing the layout of the garden and enjoying the beauty surrounding me. That certainly kept me sane! Due to the unhealthy air for several weeks due to the multiple wildfires in our state and beyond, this time was cut short in the second half of summer, but by then the new school year had already started and I didn't have that much time for this kind of leisure anyway.

When I went to see Kaefer in Davis on Valentine's Day and we had a nice lunch on the patio of a restaurant, I had no idea that this was the last time I ate at a restaurant this year. After that it was me preparing meals every single day (sometimes, though, it was just a frozen pizza from Trader Joe's). I think we only picked up food from a restaurant two or three times. Since I had subscribed to the Morning Briefing of the New York Times which includes one recipe each day, I didn't run out of new and inspiring ideas. I tried many new dishes and some of them quickly became favorites.

Good thing that Kaefer had given me a fun apron! I wore it almost every day.

The big event in our family, of course, was Kaefer's graduation from the University of California, Davis. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Global Disease Biology which is a good foundation for her new undertaking, studying for her Masters in Epidemiology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. She left right after Labor Day - bittersweet for us and I sure miss her a lot.



When I look back at the time since the beginning of the pandemic, I am amazed at the creativity that I saw during those months. First it was just the "communal howling" in our neighborhood every evening at 8:00. Then the virtual wildlife turned up, including the tiger in our backyard. Everywhere something was turning up - sidewalk art, people playing music from their balconies (Italy), others reading to kids via Zoom etc. The creative solutions we found at work and new ways to exercise. We started a Happy Hour in the street with our neighbors that we only stopped a few weeks ago with our holiday lockdown that didn't permit gatherings of any size, even outside.


What did I miss most? Certainly being together with our friends - that was worse than the cancelled trip to Australia. We had a few social distanced get togethers, but this simply wasn't the same. I miss the spontaneity of "normal" times and I wonder when or even if we will ever experience that again. I miss not being able to hug my friends. 

I sure hope that 2021 will bring vaccines to all of us and we will be able to hug each other again, to be together without being afraid to spread a virus that we still don't understand. 

To all of you I wish a happy, peaceful and healthy 2021.





Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gratitude in Difficult Times

 


Tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving, certainly a different holiday for many this year than all the years before. Many of us will follow the CDC guidelines and stay home, celebrating only with the people in our household. The turkey will be much smaller and maybe there won't be that many side dishes because Aunt Mary who usually made the sweet potatoes with marshmallows is not coming this year. My husband and I will be the only ones at the Thanksgiving table (usually we celebrate with friends) and we won't have turkey since we both don't like turkey too much anyway.

While scaled down, I hope all of you will have a lovely Thanksgiving.


This is the time when we normally give thanks (which we honestly should do every day). But what about giving thanks in a year that has been so different? A year about which most people only complain and whine? When people lost loved ones to a virus we still don't understand, or lost a job because of the economy's downturn? It must be difficult to be thankful.


But the rest of us?

So far I don't know anybody who became sick with the virus and I'm glad that I don't. There you have it, first thing to be grateful for. I myself am healthy and so is my family and are my friends and colleagues. Second thing to be deeply grateful for. 


As every day I am grateful for my family. I couldn't have a better husband than the Geek, and I can't think of having a better daughter than Kaefer. Yes, I miss her and this virus doesn't even give us the remote possibility of just dreaming about seeing each other. But she is healthy, she likes living in Munich, she enjoys her studies and the international environment of her University program. What would I do without my family? My husband's humor often has filled a darker hour with light, and modern technology enables us to have video calls with Kaefer whenever we want. I'm certainly thankful for that.


We both still have our jobs. While both my jobs have changed due to distance learning, it has also offered opportunities to learn. The biggest change in this regard has been my work at the German School since I was able to offer conversation classes during the summer and an add-on class this fall in creative writing. Before we even started to think about online classes I had this idea of teaching a creative writing class because I know how difficult it is to write in a language that is not your first language. The pandemic handed me the opportunity to do this much sooner than I had expected. Yes, I was nervous - I was downright terrified, to be honest - but then the class went much better than I had hoped. It was a lot of work, but so worth it. So so grateful for that!

Beside all these changes in my jobs I was also very busy with my Etsy shop. It kind of took off during the pandemic. Suddenly everybody wants hand knitted socks! I don't think I spent a single day since March without working my knitting needles.


I am grateful for our warm home where we can snuggle up - and my garden. Working in the garden was a particular big help this year. Creating something beautiful not only for me but also for people who walk by and often stop for a chat (socially distanced of course). Another gardener two blocks down and I exchanged gardening knowledge and plants. Reading many gardening books inspired me and motivated to some changes - like new paths and an even more organic way to treat the garden than I already had done. The result has been a gorgeous garden that still has several plants in bloom.


We finally had some rain which (hopefully) means the end of the fire season - VERY grateful for that. This season, especially these days around Thanksgiving, are so full of color that it almost takes my breath away. It seems as if 2020 tries to make it up a little bit. Fall color is at its peak right now and it is simply stunning. Every day I walk through the neighborhood and beyond, admiring this magnificent display of nature.

There is so much to be grateful for.


Last Thursday in my creative writing class I asked my students in a timed writing exercise to write about what they are grateful for. Following that we did an exercise writing a longer text about "the pandemic and I". Afterwards all of them said that writing about gratitude first changed their outlook about 2020. It's just a question of perspective I guess.

What are you grateful for?



Friday, November 13, 2020

This Week

 

This week had such a good start with finally a positive headline in our local paper. I was getting sick of all the negative news about the election and of course the virus. It was such a joy to see a message that includes hope. However, the bahavior not only of the sitting president but also of many Republican leaders following the weekend is just shameful and embarrassing. So much damage has been done to our country and our democracy. I am not sure we will fully recover from this.

Throughout the week I felt how much the days after the election, the uncertainty had exhausted me. I was tired at my work at the high school library, and while I still got a lot done it was slower progress than usual. After two more days in the coming week I'm taking a break - I worked a lot of extra hours at the beginning of the school that have not been paid and therefore I will "balance" them out and not return to work until the second week of December. 

Wednesday was Veteran's Day and this year I found it even more important to observe it than the years before after our military service people had been discredited by their own commander-in-chief. I was thinking of my uncle (my mother's younger brother) who spent ten years in Soviet war prisoner camps after World War II. He was neither a sucker nor a loser and I have the highest respect for him (yes, he is still around, in this nineties now).

Wednesday was also St Martin Day in Germany when the children go out in the street in the evening carrying their lanterns and singing the traditional songs. (I once wrote about this German tradition here) I remember when we were walking along the old alleys in Tübingen with Kaefer  and her lantern when she was two years old.

She is living in Munich now and she texted me that she saw several families walking with their children, carrying the lanterns and singing songs. Unfortunately she hadn't taken any photos.

We had some pretty frosty nights this week, the first in the season. It was also the same time that my neighbor had left for a week. She had a house and cat sitter who was putting out food for the cats, but Kibeau didn't seem to be very fond of him and spent even more time than usual in my garden. I was worried since it was so cold (we can't have him in the house because of the Geek's severe allergies), so I made a box for him with a warm fleece blanket inside and a blanket tuck around it. In the nights I also put a few pillows up against it to keep off the worst of the cold. Kibeau immediately climbed into the box after I had set it up and spent every night there, sleeping late into the mornings.


The fall colors are wonderful right now. The Chinese Pistache that I planted a few years ago is spectacular this year - I think it's getting prettier each year. It's almost glowing against the backdrop of the dark redwoods.




Did I tell you that I am teaching a creative writing class at the German School? It's an "elective" in addition to our regular classes. It has been on my mind for a long time to offer something like this, and since I know how challenging it is to write in a foreign language I thought it might be interesting to try it. So I did - and it seems that my students love it. This week they asked me whether I'm offering it again next semester and even though it is a LOT of work I'm seriously considering it. I enjoy it tremendously! I do all the work that my students do as well which means that I have been writing a lot recently. I am so happy about it. I have always enjoyed writing and started writing creatively when I was around ten years old. Growing older I took several creative writing classes - it is a really "old" love of mine. Who would have thought that I would ever teach creative writing classes myself?

I leave you today with an image of my Roger's Red - a California native vine that doesn't have "red" in its name for nothing. It's winding up the windmill my husband bought for me several years ago when we were still living in the Brookdale house.






Sunday, November 8, 2020

Día de los Muertos

After last week's Tuesday I had the strong desire to get out, to seek the calmness of nature and to think of anything else but the election. On Thursday I had to walk to the mailbox to ship some Etsy orders and then decided to go to the old rural cemetery. Right next to it is the Memorial Park that I usually only walk through, but this time I took some detours and ended up in the "Mexican" area where I had never been before. I wonder why I had never explored it. Since it was right after Día de los Muertos the gravesites were richly decorated.




After walking along for several minutes I took out my phone and started to take pictures. I just couldn't pass this up, it was too beautiful and represents a Mexican tradition that celebrates the dead instead of mourning them. I had read a lot about the Day of the Dead and had seen pictures of Mexican cemeteries where families gathered at the gravesites to eat, dance and celebrate. I love it and thought it was so much more connected to life.




There were food and beverages on the graves, plastic flowers, toys, figurines, crosses... it seems that everything goes, whatever the person who had passed did love and cherish in his or her life. What a wonderful and thoughtful way to remember a loved one.



I know that I will go here again next year at the beginning of November.


We received the good news on Saturday morning and I had the feeling that a huge sigh of relief was traveling around the world. I heard that the church bells were ringing in my native Germany. We sure felt relieved and quite happy. Now we have to do the hard work of healing this nation.



Sunday, November 1, 2020

Late October Walk

 


A few days ago I went out to Crane Creek Regional Park. This beautiful park is nestled among the vineyards in the gently rolling hills. My drive there is along back roads through more vineyards, passing Matanzas Creek Winery with its beautiful lavender garden and climbing over wooded hills and finally halfway descending to the entrance of the park. Beside featuring a disc golf course this park has many beautiful nature trails, some of them in the valley, some up the hills, offering extensive views.


I like the wide open space of the valley with its old, big trees. The landscape in fall is bone dry and the domineering color is shades of goldenbrown. This looks very different in spring! But I love it in all the seasons.

The first thing I saw when I started my walk was this hawk perching on a fence post. I'm sorry that the photo is not very good - all the pictures in this post were taken with my Pixel phone, which has a great camera, but when you zoom in very much (like I did here) the photos become very pixilated.


Some of the old trees haven't survived the many storms we have had in the past 12 months. They  now offer shelter and nesting places for birds and little mammals. Woodpeckers are searching for insects hiding in the bark, scrub jays hop from branch to branch and squirrels chase each other up and down the tree.


The creek of course is just a dry bed but in spring after the winter rains it will carry water again. Now people love to shape cairns out of the rocks in the creek bed.


As I mentioned the park has many trees, among them a high number of buckeye trees.  They flower in the early summer, but now they carry the buckeyes that gave this tree its name. Not very long until the buckeyes will fall out of the peel to the ground.




My favorite place where I like to stop and write in my journal is this picnic table under a big buckeye tree. Someone had put a few buckeyes on the table.



I love to stop here and sit. It is so quiet and not many people pass by. I can listen to the birds and the bees humming in the wildflowers. Often there is some rustling on the ground when ground-feeding birds flip the leaves in search of food. After a while I got up and continued my walk up the hill and back down to the valley.




I went up for a last view over to the Coastal Range when I saw this pumpkin on a fence post. I does look like it is munching on this post, doesn't it?