Monday, November 21, 2011

The Many Moods of Butternuts

So no joke, there I was. In my living room. By the window. Photographing a trio of butternut squashes.

I may or may not have been actually perched on top of the bookshelf with my back pressed against the window so as to achieve the best possible combination of light vs. angle. My neighbors across the way probably think of me fondly as That Crazy Lady Who Does Yoga with  Her Camera In the Window.

In any case, I was snapping away thinking about the millions of things that I think about while taking what is essentially a very basic and not all that interesting photograph of squashes. Is this light working? What about the background? I need a new camera strap. Is that stubby one in front too stubby? What if I shoot from above? My hair is annoying. Boy, that stubby one really is...stubby.

In the middle of this, I look down at my camera preview window and see this:
Immediate panic on the possible brokenness of my camera. I may or may not have almost fallen off the bookshelf.

And then I realized that in the course of moving about, snapping shots, I had accidentally nudged my camera dial from "Aperture Priority" to "Manual." Which meant that the camera was no longer helping me out by calculating the ideal shutter speed for each shot. Which meant that my shots went from full of sunlight to smoky darkness.

Immediate relief on the non-brokenness of my camera. And hot on its heels, intense curiosity.

I am totally and without question an amateur photographer. One of the unexpected developments of starting along this career of food writing has been a steadily growing side-passion for photography. When I was first hired at The Kitchn, my manager admitted to me that photography was definitely...shall we say...honestly...not my strong point. She was very kind when she said this and I was not at all offended because she was totally right.

But I really badly wanted photography to be, if not my strong point, at least no longer a weakness. Truthfully, I've always really liked photography and felt drawn to it as an art form. The trouble is that I lacked the patience of using up a roll of film, getting it developed, and then finding that maybe two pictures were decent.

Turns out that I just needed to wait for digital cameras to be invented! I love digital cameras. Pro photographers can yearn for the good ol' days of film photography, but as for me, I'm not looking back. I love the immediate feedback. I love being able to take pictures until my battery runs out and never having to worry about scrounging the money to get them developed. I love having neat, organized (ok, mostly organized) files for all my photos instead of a shoe-box. I love being able to work on them right away in Photoshop without resorting to chemicals or dark rooms (see above re: impatience and laziness).

Digital cameras made me love photography.

I've worked at my photo skills doggedly over the past few years. I look back on some of my early photos (like this one and this one and this one), and it's pretty cool to see just how far I've come. Somewhere along the way, photography went from simply being a way to document the things in front of me to being something that felt more like art. I feel the same sense of passion and focus when I'm taking photographs as I do when I sit down to write a story. I like it. I love it.

But back to these squashes. Once I was sure my camera was ok, I got curious about what such a drastic shutter speed difference was really doing. In my photographs, I'm primarily aiming to reproduce what I see. If I see bright light, I want bright light. If I see moody shadows, I want moody shadows. It never really occurred to me that I could manipulate the camera settings to create a totally different feeling than the actual scene before me.

This was a bright sunny fall afternoon. But by slowing down the shutter speed, dropping from 1/800 of a second to 1/250 of a second, I still get a sharp picture but I completely change the way the light enters the camera. Cool.

I kept stepping up the speed to see how the increments changed. I love how spooky and and slightly sinister these innocent butternut squashes become:

As you are reading this (if you're still reading at this point, ahem), you're probably thinking either a) Wow, this is super nerdy, or b) Wow, you're just figuring this out? Or to give myself a little credit, possibly c) Wow, this is nerdtastic and I love it! In any for stopping by? Goooo, photo-nerds!

P.S. Yes, I totally had to look up the whole "1/250 of a second" thing to make sure I got it right and didn't make myself look silly.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The State of Kombucha Address

When last we spoke on this subject, I believe my kombucha was looking rather primordial. As you can see, things have improved.

For starters, I'm actually making kombucha. Like for-reals, drinkable, I-can't-believe-it's-not-storebought kombucha. It's tangy and fizzy, a bit spicy and a bit sweet. Guys, this stuff is tasty!

Even the scoby isn't too scary anymore. After the first few rounds, my two guys filmed over with this solid creamy-white layer that really looks and feels a lot like a thick piece of rubber. Totally not scary at all, cross my heart.

Every new batch of kombucha creates a new layer on top of the scoby. Scobys do wear out after a little while, so I've started peeling off the bottom-most layer every few batches.

I think the balance between the bacteria and the yeast has also evened out. At first, the bacteria was totally ruling the roost, but now the yeast seems to have elbowed in for some playtime of its own. It's pretty cool to see little bubbles fizzing up from the scoby when I check on it at night. The kombucha that I'm bottling is also getting very nicely carbonated, which didn't happen for the first few batches.
Man, I love this stuff. Not only the kombucha itself, but the whole process of making it. I wish I had a microscope so I could zoom in and see what all the little yeasties and bacterias were up to in there. I imagine them bustling around, excited to find new bits of sugar to eat and new flavors to create. I'm sure that's exactly what's happening.

Looks like Muney the Cat is also curious about what's going on in these jars. Or at least what could possibly be so fascinating that he's not getting any love right now. I'm thinking I'd better go take care of that, pronto.

State of the Kombucha: Thumbs up!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Good Coffee, Creatures at Monterey Bay Aquarium, and a Flying Submarine

But before jelly fish, there was coffee.

It was coffee of the Barefoot variety, modeled here by Motorcycle Cop Jana. It makes me happy to have a good coffee roaster nearby. Look out for that Jana, though.

Then there was Monterey Bay.
And its famous aquarium.
There were tiny little fishies swimming in perfect circles, and big fishies looking menacing. There were octopuses with suckers and eels poking their heads out of rocks. There was a wise old turtle that flew through the water. And there were teeny-tiny little seahorses hiding in the shrubbery.

And there were jellies. I love these guys. So weird and beautiful. And stingy. But mostly beautiful.

Hello, tunas! I would like to eat you!

But wait, what's that lurking behind you? Egads!
Craziness. Sheer craziness.

At dinner, we had one more surprise.
A flying submarine! Sadly, the lift-off controls were out of order.
If you're ever in Santa Cruz and find yourself thirsty, I recommend a stop by the Cellar Door, the restaurant of Bonny Doon Vineyards. Sit at the bar with its view of the flying submarine and order yourself the wine or beer of your choice along with the chef's pizza of the day. You won't regret it. We certainly didn't.
Points of Interest:

Barefoot Coffee
5237 Stevens Creek Blvd.
Santa Clara, California 95051

Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940

Cellar Door - Bonny Doon Vineyard
328 Ingalls St
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Friday, September 16, 2011

One Last Zucchini Salad For Summer (Or, How I Learned to Love Zucchini)

I am not what you might call a zucchini girl. It's one vegetable I've never really understood. I kinda looks like a cucumber, but it's not. It's kinda watery like a cucumber, but it's not. It's also kinda mild-flavored like a cucumber, but its not. And I'm not really a cucumber girl, either, so the whole concept of the zucchini was pretty much doomed from the start for me.

And then there's summer squash. Of which zucchini is one. And of which That Yellow One is another. Why doesn't The Yellow One get a name? That seems unfair and makes me feel rather sympathetic toward The Yellow One, despite the fact that it basically tastes the same as a zucchini. (Also, can summer squashes really be its own category if it really only contains two examples? I mean look at winter squashes. Now those squashes have their act together, hoo boy! But I digress.)

But despite having all the cards stacked against them from the start, I have finally discovered the one application of summer squash(es) that is totally and completely worth it. My friends, it is this: squash ribbons.

Perhaps you are already familiar with squash ribbons, a.k.a. squash fettuccine, a.k.a. squash noodles. I had never tried them before this summer on the vague principle that a dish of noodles should contain actual noodles and not vegetables disguised as noodles. The event that brought them to my attention was dinner at the house of some new friends. I am a sucker for any food someone else makes for me, and the fact that this was a dish of cleverly-disguised zucchini was no exception. Also, my momma raised me polite.

You see where this is going. The squash ribbons were delicious. The lemon and mint in the dressing was the perfect companion to the slightly sweet flavor of the summer squash. Their spongy texture, often so troubling in vegetarian menu options, was completely transformed by the simple shift from wedge-shape to ribbon-shape. The chewy bits of parmesan on top added that final touch of salty richness. The whole dish was just so clean-tasting and refreshing. Yum.

Back home, I looked for the recipe, but couldn't find the exact one my friend said she had been using for years. The internets were eager to provide me with other recipe suggestions, but none of them seemed quite what I was looking for. No choice but to make up my own recipe!

In truth, this is more of a template than a recipe. The key players are your summer squashes, some kind of vinaigrette, some kind of herb-alicious enhancement, and a sprinkle of cheese. Within these categories, feel free to go crazy. 

This here's the version my taste buds have craved this summer. It makes an excellent side dish to grilled fish or roasted chicken. Plus a glass of pinot grigio if you're feeling classy. (And when are you not?)

Cheers, Summer! Until next year!

Squash Ribbons with Lemon and Mint
Serves 4

This recipe is built for four people, but you can scale it up or down as you so desire. Shoot for one squash per person and adapt the vinaigrette to match.

4 summer squashes - a mix of zucchinis and yellow squashes are nice for the colors
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced mint leaves
2 tablespoons Parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling on top

To make the ribbons, run a vegetable peeler down the entire length of the squash. Rotate the squash between each cut, going around and around until the squash becomes too thin to peel. Aim for thick ribbons of even width, but no need to get fussy. (P.S. The stumpy middle pieces that you're left with after ribboning are an excellent meal-prep snack if dipped in a little salt.)

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, mint leaves, and parmesan, along with a healthy three-fingered pinch of salt. Give the vinaigrette a taste and adjust any of the components as needed. Pour the vinaigrette over the ribbons and toss to coat. Let the salad stand about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve on individual plates with a second sprinkling of parmesan on top. Leftovers will keep for a few days in the fridge.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hooked on the 'Buch

That would be 'buch as in "kombucha." Which is a fizzy, tart, mildly-fermented tea that was all the rage in China and Eastern Europe for centuries before landing squarely with the natural foodists and hipsters in the last few decades. What, you haven't heard of it? Trust me, you will.

People can get pretty evangelical about kombucha. They'll tell you that it strengthens your immune system, aids digestion, cures the common cold, makes your hair shinier, and graces you with feelings of bliss and tenderness toward your fellow human beings. They'll encourage you to drink it at least once a day for maximum benefit, and then they'll pour you a glass right then and there.

That may all very well be true, but I just think it tastes good. To me, it has the tart freshness of good apple cider with an edge of mild sweetness and an underbelly of earthier spice flavors. The actual tea-flavor fades into the background, and the fizziness makes it seem more like drinking very tasty soda or mild-flavored beer. It actually reminds me a lot of a Belgian lambic or gueuze, minus the alcohol. (Though, yes, kombucha does have a wee drop of alcohol after it's done fermenting. Shhh!)

My market research for the kombucha chapter in my brewing book has rapidly taken on a life of its own, such that I have moved up the schedule on developing those recipes so as to curb the constant flow of pennies from my pocket to GT's Synergy Kombucha HQ.
Kombucha Mothering
Step #1 has been to grow my kombucha mother, or SCOBY (short for "Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast." Poetic, right?). The mother is responsible for making the magic happen in that bottle of kombucha, kind of a like a sourdough starter for sourdough bread. It looks like a wobbly flat pancake and has the consistency of fresh squid. Yum!

You can order fully-formed kombucha mothers online or beg them from a kombucha-brewing friend, but it's also pretty straight-forward to grow your own. You just need one last $3.50 bottle of GT's Synergy Kombucha and a batch of extra-sweet tea. GT's is a raw kombucha, which means that it still contains the live bacteria and yeasts used for brewing the kombucha (you can actually see them in the form of that little blobby thing awkwardly hanging out in the bottom of the bottle). With new food in the form of sugar, those bacteria and yeasts will gradually come together in a new SCOBY.
For the first few days, nothing happened. The jars of sweet tea sitting on my counter looked like...jars of sweet tea. Because I am a worrier, I worried. I fretted. I hovered. I had the following conversation with a kombucha-brewing friend over Facebook:
Me: So I'm in the middle of Day 3 of starting my own kombucha mother and don't see anything happening yet. Do you think I did something wrong? Or should I just sit tight and stop being so impatient?
Her: You need to give it somewhere between 7-14 days for the scoby to form. Cover it with a breathable cloth and put it out of your sight (and the light :).
Me: Yup, it's covered with a cloth and out of the light. So...I guess what you're saying is....I just need to sit tight and stop hovering.
And then, right around Day #6, it started doing stuff! And y'all....I'm not going to's "stuff" looks pretty gross. Like a primordial swamp in my Mason jar. Take a look at this thing around Day #8:
Who would ever think this could make delicious brews? Not me.

But I have faith. Faith that this swamp of bacteria and yeast will come together into a squid-textured pancake that will mother my sweet tea into tasty bliss-gracing kombucha. Will it work? Will Emma finally kick the GT habit and successfully complete a chapter of her book? Who knows what evil lurks in the jars of brewed teas? The Shadow knows... [cue music...fade to black...and end scene.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Totally Unrelated: (Re)Discovering My Inner Girly Girl

Saucy San Francisco Scarf: Check!

I've been lusting after a scarf like this for months. The San Francisco Cool Kids sport them all year round. They wear them so nonchalantly, so...blase-ly and unconcerned-ly. Their knots are intricate and well-practiced. And, admittedly, these scarves are pretty much the perfect accessory for the unpredictable San Francisco weather. They're neither as thick or enveloping as a pashmina nor as skimpy as a Parisian neck-kerchief. They keep your temperature regulated and keep you looking très cool. (P.S. Spell-check wants to auto-correct "pashmina" to "pastrami." Which is kinda ok with me.)

My point here is that I've been wanting one of these saucy scarves for quite a while. But I have this little problem with...well...girly-ness. Somewhere between hanging out with the theater techies in high school and going to a very-feminist all-women college, I decided that being girly was the equivalent of being silly.

For a while there, I shaved my head (but not my armpits), wore sports bras instead of real bras (ok, I still do that sometimes), and collected dirty jokes like they were going out of style (with which to shock my more delicately constitutioned women companions and impress my more raunchy male companions, of course). I also firmly suppressed my very real desire for high heeled shoes, sparkly jewelry, and pink martinis.

At some point, I woke up and realized that this was not who I really was. Really, like most women, I'm somewhere in the middle. But after years of constantly shoving that Inner Girly Girl in the back closet, you might be surprised at how hard it is to let her out again. It surprised me. I find that I have to really work at it.

I stood there next to the display of saucy San Francisco scarves for a good ten minutes. My pal and fellow Kitchn writer Leela dutifully commented on each scarf I held up to my face, comparing color with skin tone, texture with softness, and generally coaching me into buying one.

It was a big moment for my Inner Girly Girl. Maybe next time I'll wear heels.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

This Week at The Kitchn! Plus a side note on the difficulty of letting go

This was my last week with my regular schedule at The Kitchn before going down to fewer posts and it's making me feel a little weepy. It's all for good reasons, mostly to do with freeing up a little more of my time with this whole book thing happening. But, man, The Kitchn has been such a huge part of my daily life for so many years that taking even this small step away from it just feels...weird. It feels a little like losing my center of gravity. Or rather, like my center has just shifted a little to the side and now my balance is all wonky.

And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that my ego is hurting a little. These posts are my babies. As genuinely happy as I am to see other writers on the site eagerly stepping in to take over the now-empty post slots, there's this twinge of anxiety that I'm letting my babies go. How do I know the other writers will treat them right? How can I be sure they're taken care of? It's astounding how emotionally attached I feel toward them.

But I have to laugh at myself. The other writers on The Kitchn are phenomenal. More than that, they're my friends and we work as a team. My little Kitchn-post-babies will do wonderfully in their capable hands.

And this is really a very good thing for me. I'm usually of the mindset that I can do it all, all the time, and nope I don't need any help thanks! Then I am very surprised weeks or months later when I'm suddenly a stressed-out ball of quivering nerves who can't sleep at night. Go figure!

So yes, this transition is leaving me feeling off-balance and emotionally akimbo, but it's a good move in the long run. (Dear husband: You're welcome!) I really am looking forward to having more time and just plain ol' energy to work on the book as well as some other projects that have been on the back burner for far too long. Good times ahead. Eventually.

P.S. Check it out! An article I wrote on grilled calzones got picked up by the Chicago Tribune, and that's pretty cool: Bubbly, Hot and Delicious: Grilling Turns Calzones into Crispy, Flavorful Mouthfuls

And here's what I've been up to on The Kitchn:

What have you been up to?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

This Week at The Kitchn!

Yes, eventually I will get into a good rhythm of posting things other than my Kitchn round-ups. Like about how I hover over my fermentation buckets like a mother hen. Like the confession a friend recently made to me regarding summer squash. Like more deep thoughts relating to writing, brewing, and my neuroses.

But because I've been swamped trying to juggle all those things and find my balance, for now it's just a Kitchn round-up. Forgive me? What about if I make you Spicy Jalapeno-Lime Hummus and homemade pita?

And what have you been up to this week?