Friday, July 3, 2020

This was June!

Social distanced Happy Hour with the neighbors

In June I gave myself a little challenge of taking at least one photo each day. I had become rather lazy with photography and I hadn't used my big camera since February when I last visited the beach. Thankfully there were several occasions in June when I finally used the big camera again - it felt so good.

Sometime in late April or early May (I can't remember exactly when) the neighbors in our corner started to gather for a happy hour on Fridays at five in the afternoon. We first were sitting by the side of the street; everybody brought their chair and drink of choice and we would sit 6ft. apart from each other and chat. It was wonderful to meet up. After a few weeks one of the neighbors had the genius idea to move to the cul-de-sac at the corner - it's quieter and it also offers more shade. Since then we have met up every Friday for an hour and a half to two hours and it is one of the highlights of the week.

The little girl a couple houses down turned four and we did a drive-by birthday "party" for her. It was a lot of fun to see the decorated cars and bicycles pass by, honking their horns and ringing their bells.

During June I continued my walks, discovering the back alleys in the historical district of the town. These back alleys are very quiet and have almost a rural feel - it's hard to believe that we are not far from downtown when you walk here. They offer a lot of shade and unpaved trails.

I enjoyed my June garden a lot. The poppies were the bright spots and happily displayed their beauty. They all came from the poppies that I had first sown eight years ago. Since then they have self-sown every year - so easy.

Oh - and we had some very hot days in June when I simply wasn't up to cooking dinner. So I made tuna poké with seaweed, rice, avocado, and lots of sesame.

I was very happy when the Rural Cemetery was re-opened at the end of May. I've been there many times and each time I discover something new and see something from a different perspective. That place is never crowded, there are nature trails and lots of space to walk.

The glowing bear - Lumibär - at our entrance is from Germany. I bought it when the Geek and I were still dating. We were walking to our favorite café in Tübingen when we passed a shop that had several of these bears in different colors in their windows. There was no price, however. The Geek went inside to inquire about the price - it wasn't exactly cheap, but not very expensive either. Over some coffee and breakfast I pondered about it and decided that it would be fun to have it. When we entered the store the clerk greeted us with the words "Which color should it be?" We had to laugh about that. I chose the orange Lumibär (of course!) - that was in 1996. He moved with us to the US, he was in our evacuation "bag" - and next year he will turn 25. He shines in the mornings and evenings and the kids in the neighborhood love him. Some call him the "giant gummy bear".

We celebrated a big event in June - Kaefer graduated from the University of California, Davis. On June 12th was the virtual commencement celebration that we watched together. Of course it was very different from the "real" thing, but the important thing is that she graduated. She will now do her Masters, either in Munich or in London. She got in both programs and now has to decide where she wants to go.

The middle of June brought more days in the garden and walks through the - like-minded - neighborhood. Friends of us came over for a social distanced couple of hours of good conversation and good wine, lots of laughing and the faint feeling of some kind of normalcy. One Sunday we visited the Lavender Labyrinth at a lavender farm which was fun - more pictures will probably follow in another blogpost.

Kaefer went back to Davis to pack more of her things and I drove over one day to take graduation pictures of her and one of her best friends who was also her work mate. We took photos at different locations on campus that have had some meaning for them during those four years, and also a picture of her and myself. From that day on Kaefer has been staying with us which is a big gift for us before she will move to Europe.

I have started knitting a summer sweater for her, but I'm getting second thoughts about the neckline. It is a technique I have never done before and I'm a bit nervous about it. Maybe I should practice before!

The last week of June... Kaefer and I went to the lavender garden of Matanzas Creek Winery (I wrote about those gardens herehere and here) to take a few more graduation photos. I simply love this place. I also finally went back to Crane Creek Regional Park - I'm still avoiding the lake since there are just too many people who don't distance or wear masks, but it's safe in Crane Creek - not many people and those I met were wearing masks when we were passing each other. This is another place that feeds my soul and I just hope that they don't close the parks again. Unfortunately the number of cases are going up again rather speedily (which I think results from opening up too early and too fast) and I wouldn't be surprised if we took a few steps back again.

Since the second week of June I'm officially on summer break. I had my last class with the German School on June 10th (I decided to offer two conversation classes of four weeks each) and am glad to have some "real" free time. However, I'm also on the "re-opening" committee of the German School where we work on different strategies on how to re-open our school in the fall. That is a ton of work!

How was your June? What are you doing this summer?

To all of you in the US - have a happy Fourth!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Quarantine Kitchen

In my last food related post I promised that there will be a part 2 to the food that we ate during the shelter-in-place. This is more of a look back now since the county has re-opened and it seems that people are getting out more. Restaurants are open for dine-in - most of them using patio space and dining outside which here in Northern California is a no-brainer, really. But I do wonder whether is has been such a smart idea to open up while still being in the middle of a pandemic. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away. No surprise that the number of newly infected cases is going up almost everywhere in the country.

But - back to food. Very often I cook without any recipe, like the dish in the photo on top. Seafood mix, red bell pepper, edamame and chow mein noodles all thrown in a wok with some good spices make a satisfying dinner. My secret ingredient for this is sesame oil, and apart from that any food you can find in your kitchen. Just use your imagination and experiment with different spices.

One of our favorite dishes from Italy is pesto. I don't make my own pesto since I found a wonderful pesto from Italy that always reminds me of Tuscany and the wonderful time we had there. Of course it's accompanied by a glass of California red wine.

When we had pesto we usually have some spaghetti left over that easily makes another meal. Again, I just use what I have - spinach and Bavarian bratwurst, broccoli and Bavarian bratwurst, eggplant and pancetta. There is no limit to your imagination.

Or you can make fritata with a salad on the side. Just make sure not to burn it like I did!

We do love that Bavarian bratwurst. I find this one at Trader Joe's, it comes right from Munich and is a true German bratwurst. We eat it with a broccoli-cauliflower gratin on the side and sometimes I eat it as a curry wurst just like in Germany.

Trader Joe's Instagram page also inspired me to try some of their ideas, like the "sweet balls of fire" - meatballs cooked in a sauce made from their sweet chili sauce and raspberry jam - so good! Even better with focaccia - this was my second try and it already was a big improvement from my first one.

I do love to cook seafood, so I made puff pastry shells with shrimp and a creamy sauce with cremini mushrooms, zucchini and red bell pepper (my own creation) as well as a lovely lemon baked cod (I found the recipe on Pinterest here). I'm always happy when I find a fish recipe that everybody likes and doesn't amount to a ton of work.

Have you heard of Shakshuka eggs? While it is a breakfast dish I made it for dinner once, first time I tried it because I wanted to bring a Middle Eastern dish to the table. While it wasn't a favorite, it was certainly very flavorful and delicious.

Let's not forget about desserts. While usually we just have a piece of chocolate to round out our dinner I sometimes make the effort to make a special dessert like Tiramisu which has been a favorite since I brought the recipe from Italy 25 years ago or so. Here is the recipe.

In our paper (or the New York Times, I can't remember) I found a recipe for a crumb cake that sounded easy enough. It doesn't look like much, but the taste was okay. I think I would like to add some fresh fruit on the side - strawberries or peaches - and some whipped cream.

And just to make this pandemic time a bit easier to endure, a good drink is never wasted - be it a maitai on a Sunday afternoon, white wine with the fish or a traditional German Erdbeerbowle.

Now go in the kitchen and make something beautiful!

Monday, June 15, 2020

Enough Is Enough

Lafayette Square, Washington DC

The past few weeks have left me speechless. I didn't succeed in finding the words to express my horror, my rage, and my sadness in the aftermath of the senseless killing of yet another black man.

So I listened. Being a white person in the US comes with a lot of privileges. Of many I have always known, but there are many I haven't been aware of. Most I didn't even think about twice. Things I've always taken for granted - like I surely didn't expect to die when I was pulled over several years ago because I didn't stick to the speed limit on the "loneliest highway in America".

One of the stories I recently read: After attending a conference a 51-year old black man was on his way back to Sacramento, driving along the interstate when his car was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. Instinctively, he put his hands on the dashboard and felt his heart racing in his chest. He had taught his children to immediately put their hands on the dashboard when pulled over so that police officers could see that they weren't armed. It is important to mention that the black man was in the passenger seat. The car was driven by a white, plain-clothed law enforcement officer.

The black man was Tony Thurmond, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Let that sink in for a moment.

A respected, elected black state official still reacts with fear and caution when confronted with law enforcement in a seemingly harmless situation. So how does a 17-year old black teenager feel, a 24-year old black man, a 43-year old black father? What do the mothers, wives and children of these men feel and fear on a daily basis?

I chose not to watch the video of George Floyd's violent killing. But in a podcast I heard his last words, his pleading with the police officer who was kneeling on his neck (with his hands in his pockets!). They haunt me. How much more do they affect the black community - anybody, really, who has a heart?

No, I didn't join the protests, but I applaud and support everybody who get out and let their voices be heard (I'm not talking about the rioters and looters). It's our constitutional right to assemble peacefully. That's why the violent break-up of a peaceful protest in Washington's Lafayette Square enrages me so much.

A lot is at stake in our country.

I may not find the words right now, but I will not be silent.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Parks Are Open Again

A few weeks ago our parks were re-opened. First the parking lots remained closed and only people who live in the vicinity of a park could access it by foot or bike.

My favorite parks are not in walking distance from my home. While I could access the lake by bike, the ride there is no fun at all on busy roads with no bike lanes. Even riding along more quiet neighborhood streets can't avoid the busy intersections.

But the old rural cemetery is close to our neighborhood. It was also closed, but now finally we were able to access it again. Of course there were rules in place, all of which make perfect sense.

There was also another sign that was less comfortable...

We live in cougar country and they have been spotted in our neighborhood, so I was aware of my surroundings and avoided the most remote parts of the cemetery.

After the long closure of the parks and the complaining of the people about it I had expected that the cemetery was crowded because people were so eager to get outside and enjoy some nature. But to my surprise I was almost the only one wandering the trails.

A small section of the cemetery had been turned into a native plants garden years ago. It was a bit overgrown but there were still beautiful flowers to discover.

Calycanthus occidentalis (Spice Bush) 

Lepechinia clycina (California Pitcher Plant)

Of course Lathyrus latifolius, the perennial peavine, could be seen everywhere.

After walking for quite a while I found a bench where I sat down for a while, listening to the birds, breathing in the wonderful scent of the old trees, feeling the sun on my skin, hearing the whispering of the soft breeze in the leaves, watching busy little squirrels and just enjoying being in nature.

Only a week later the parking lots were opened as well while beaches at the ocean still remain closed (except for coastal residents). But I'm still weary of crowds and avoid the more popular parks. I find all the peace and calmness of nature in this old cemetery where time seems to stand still. This is enough for me right now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Pandemic Food

Vegetable Radiatore with zucchini and German bratwurst

These past two months have been incredibly intense and challenging. I assume that many of you felt that as well. Shortly after our shelter-in-place order was set on March 18th the German School went in overdrive to figure out how to keep up our classes. The board of directors - of which I am one - met so many times via Zoom that I lost count. But we achieved our goal - via the educator platform of Zoom and the flexibility of all of the teachers we were able to continue our classes, albeit in a very different way. Then someone suggested that since we already have Zoom we could offer some classes over the summer - since no one was going anywhere anyway. The teachers who were up to it - including yours truly - sat down to design their classes, the board worked out how to organize it and finally we had a good offering of summer classes as well. Everybody worked really hard to get this off the ground, and I'm so proud of everyone in the team.

On top of that there were staff meetings with the high school and with the library technicians of the school district. Last week I was finally able to actually get onto campus and into the library to get at least a few things done. It felt very weird to be there all on my own when the school usually is so full of life.

No wonder that cooking became a great way to get me away from the computer and create something that was filling and satisfying (don't ask my ever expanding waist line, though).

Chicken legs with roasted potatoes and bell pepper

Chicken Shawarma

The first time I tried the Middle Eastern dish Chicken Shawarma was last summer and it has quickly become a favorite. We eat it with flatbread, lettuce, tomatoes and garlic yogurt with lots of cumin. The recipe asks for cooking it on the grill, but I opted to make it in the oven and it turned out delicious. If you like some spice in your food you will like this dish. You can find the recipe here.

The Southwest Skillet Chili Mac is another favorite and perfect for cooler days (we had some rather chilly days during those two months). I wrote about it here, and the recipe can be cooked as a vegetarian as well as a meat lover's dish.

Then our oven broke! Well, not the entire oven, but the heating coil. Of course all the stores were closed, so we had to get one online which took several days. Thankfully my wonderful friend Liz send me a few stove-top recipes. Some of them I tried out - oh, I will definitely make them again!

How about Balsamic Garlic Chicken?

Or Spicy Thai Noodles? This recipe asks for linguine which I couldn't get (pasta was pretty low in the two stores where I shop), but I still had some Udon which tasted great in this dish.

During this pandemic I usually do my big grocery shopping every other week, when I also shop for my elderly neighbors. I shop at Trader Joe's - have done so since 2001 and there are still the same employees! But we are lucky to also have a small but fine grocery store "around the corner" (10 minutes to walk) which is important if I want something really fresh or local products. I also enjoy going to the farmers market even though it is not much fun at the moment.

My cast iron skillet has been used a lot indeed!

 Lemon Chicken with Orzo

Tuscan Butter Salmon with lots of cherry tomatoes and spinach, plus some homemade focaccia

After the coil in the oven was replaced (thanks to the Geek) it was back to the oven - whole grain bread with pumpkin and sunflower seeds as well as my first try baking focaccia - it looks odd (I'm not a good dough shaper), but the taste was very nice. There certainly is room for improvement.

With the oven back in place I could also make other favorites - like the Broccoli Mac'n Cheese, a recipe I found 30 years ago in England and still love. I don't think that our family can live without it.

I think I need to stop here - there will be a second part to this blogpost with other delicious dishes and of course some desserts! And we don't forget the drinks either!

What have you been cooking?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Loving the Light

Every morning I start the day with a walk in the garden. The pandemic hasn't changed that - on the contrary, the garden has become my refuge even more than in "normal" times. I particularly like the mornings because of the light - I simply love how only bits and parts are illuminated while everything around it remains in the shadows.

It's also the quality of the light - it's warm and soft, spreading a beautiful glow. How can I as a photographer not see that? And how can I not try to capture it in an image?

The peony had an additional gift - morning dew. Can you see the tiny droplets?

Even the pots become something whimsical.

A small part of the hollyhocks beside the path is illuminated - these plants will grow pretty tall and are a very few of non-drought tolerant plants in my garden. My guilty pleasure - I love hollyhocks, they always remind me of England.

I'm loving the light in the pomegranate tree - this is the tree I planted a few weeks ago and it already gives me so much joy.

What is your morning routine that sets you up for the day?