Christmas 2011: The Nativity

Our Nativity scene has a Scandinavian twist.

Kris’ grandma Charlene gave us this Nativity set last year.  Since I didn’t make it to Nebraska last wintertime, I saw it for the first time a few days ago.  We’ve got all the figures set up, with 2 special additions, Dala horses.  There’s Mary, Joesph, an angel, shepherd, and various farm animals; the Dala horses fit right in.

You may notice that the Baby Jesus is not in His crib.  I’ve hidden Baby Jesus until Christmas Day.  Traditionally in Latino households, Baby Jesus gets put in his crib when the family comes back from midnight mass.  The 3 Wise Men are also seemingly MIA.  They are across the room, next to the stereo.  Every few days I move them closer to the manger set, but they won’t show up until the Feast of the Ephiphany, 12 days after Christmas, January 6th.

Nature’s Green Butter: our avocado harvest

Our avocado crop increased 300% this year.  By that I mean that we went from 2 avocados last year to 6 avocados this year.  Our avocado tree is the spoiled baby of the backyard, and it is full of surprises.  When we moved into our home in May 2010, seeing an avocado tree, albeit stunted from years of neglect, was a delight.  Once you know what an avocado tree looks like, they are easy to spot.  First are the two-toned leaves, a dark green, glossy as a magazine page top coupled with a wallflower tan beige underneath.  Avocado trees always have an abundance of leaves making them fun to lie underneath and stare up into the Jackson Pollock chaos of it all.  These trees do not have bark but instead tout a green-yellow nakedness dotted with rough brown patches that the sun has “burnt.”

When we got married, Kris and I gave my mom an avocado tree, planting it, mistakenly, in late August 2009.  It did not survive the winter.  Having naked bark means they are very susceptible to too low of temperatures unless they are planted in a pot and brought inside for the winter.  My mom was very excited about that tree, and it broke her heart to see its once green branches turn black as if overtaken by frostbite.

She was the first to explore the backyard of our new house, and the first to discover an avocado tree hanging on for dear life behind a massive wall of thistles.  After we massacred the thistles, we discovered that the tree had two fragile fruits, hanging in its lower branches.  So, like Marlin in Finding Nemo left with one last egg in the movie’s opening scene, we took those fruits, ripened them and planned how we could save the avocado tree the following Spring.

This tree is the avocado tree that carries all hope.

And it has delivered 300%.

Six avocados this year.  A record!  Since avocados do not ripen on the tree, I picked them and wrapped them up in a brown paper bag, giving them about 2 weeks to soften and darken in color.

Here’s a close up.  I wish you could scratch and sniff the screen because it smelled earthy, sweet, and ripe.

After the fruit had ripened, we were left with a divisive dilemma.  Kris wanted to make something with them and found all sorts of recipes in an effort to get me to add them into something.  Avocado Pie.  Avocado Ice Cream (I admit this one tempted me).  Avocado Mousse.  (My husband has a sweet tooth).  My instinct told me that by cooking our first avocados in a recipe, the flavor would be lost with all the other ingredients.  Avocados are usually added for texture and for vegan creaminess factor.  I wouldn’t budge.  I wanted something where the avocado would be the star, not a texture agent.

So, we smashed up 1 avocado into pure essence.

And we anti-climatically used it to top some cheese and crackers.  The most flavorful cheese and crackers I have ever eaten.  I swear, I was eating nature’s green butter.

Monday’s Photo: No Poodles Allowed

I know.  It’s Tuesday, not Monday, and I have been missing for about a week now with zero, zip, nada.  I’m actually in the process of making a career transition from working in secondary education (high school) to working in higher education (post-secondary).  I will let you know how things work out.  In the meantime, please enjoy this photo from Granada, Spain.  In my humble opinion, it means, no poodles, but any other kind of dog would be fine.

P.S. Doesn’t it look like the poodle is wearing high heels?

2 baking disasters

Let’s start with a confession.  I am not a baker.

Here’s a more positive spin: I am a wannabe baker.  I love the result, hate the process.  For me, baking is like taking a hike up a mountain in a straight jacket.  Love the view, hate the climb.

Baking is everything that I am not: methodical, precise, sweet, scientific.

I have a few baking recipes that I’ve posted.

Triple Caress Mocha Chocolate Chip Cookies
Double Tree Hotel Chocolate Chip Cookies
Zucchini Bread from the Ancient Spice Routes
Persimmon Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Half of these, I might add, have been adapted from cookbook geniuses like Crescent Dragonwagon and David Lebovitz.  That’s why the recipes are good- because the adjustments I made are superficial – some extra spice or vanilla, a variation in process.

The truth is, I can open my refrigerator door, grab 10 random ingredients and have a 3 course meal, appetizer, salad, and entree ready in 45 minutes.  But I become weak in the knees when it comes time to make dessert.

This is where my local library and its 2 aisle-long cookbook collection comes in handy.  Recently I checked out Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: from my home to yours.  It’s considered a classic.  (Don’t worry I didn’t know that fact until a month ago and I didn’t know Dorie Greenspan from Dora the Explorer)

Let’s just say that learning to bake is like learning to drive a clutch, it’s punctuated with stalls and re-starts.  Here are my two most recent baking disasters.

Disaster #1

For baking attempt #1 I tried making, for the first time ever, a cake from scratch.  Really they were cupcakes since I was taking them to a friend’s work site for her birthday. Some muffin paper cups with Snoopy holding Woodstock’s hand and “It’s good to have a friend” written on them may have also influenced my decision to make cupcakes.

The recipe called for 1 egg and 1 egg yolk.  Eggs, God help me, are for binding all the ingredients as they cook; eggs are the glue of baking.  I know this, but for some reason while I was mixing the ingredients, a bout of amnesia hit.  Really, I was being cheap.

1 egg yolk?  What am I going to do with the leftover egg white?  I can’t just toss it.  Throwing out food is sacrilegious.  I ixnay the 2nd egg.  Instead I substitute 1/4 cup of buttermilk, wrongfully thinking that the extra buttermilk, in addition to the already 1/2 cup the recipe called for, would make the cupcakes super moist.  1 egg, that’s equal to about 1/4 cup of buttermilk, right?

The result: A fragile batch of brown crumbs holding together like a pair of awkward, desperate teenagers caught kissing under the football stands.  These cupcakes shattered at the slightest bite.  We resorted to eating them over the sink because of how crumbly they were.

The lesson: I gotta learn the basics of baking before I go all mad scientist creating something else.

Disaster #2:

Also came from my measly attempts to emulate one of the cooking world’s matriarchs.  This time I was making Dorie’s recipe for pastry cream.  Kris’ uncle was in the Bay Area and came over for dinner.  The plan was to macerate (fancy word for coax the juices out of) a few nectarines, bake up some puff pastry (obviously from a box), and top it off with some homemade pastry cream.

Pastry cream is the ambrosia they put inside chocolate eclairs.  In order to get it out, people either (A) lap it out from the eclair-shell with their tongue, French-kissing style or (B) dig their finger into the eclair-shell, pull the cream out, and gratifyingly lick it off their fingers.  I am part of the B-category of eclair eaters.

I halved the recipe since there was only 3 of us, and I didn’t want this custard-temptress hovering in my fridge.  Still recovering from the previous baking disaster, I decide to follow the ingredient list and recipe scrupulously.  This recipe, halved, called for 4 egg yolks.  This time I heroically decided not to balk at all the extra egg whites.  (At least with 4 I could make an omelet.)  Even the tempering went well.  (Tempering is when you SLOWLY mix hot milk into raw egg yolks, all in an effort to avoid scrambling the eggs)  I have no trouble tempering because I paranoically do it 1/2 cup of milk at a time.  Making homemade custard-based ice cream was how I learned a slow, patient tempering.

Here’s where I went wrong.  I missed reading a sentence (or two…or three) in the recipe.  I was supposed to return the liquid to the stove and cook it a little longer to ensure that the pastry cream would solidify into a luscious custard after a stint in the fridge.

Instead, as soon as I finished tempering the milk into the egg yolks and sugar, I let it cool slightly, then unwittingly covered it and put it in the fridge.  Of course I took a taste of the liquid custard, and of course it tasted like heavenly bliss, and in an hour, it’d have the texture of pudding.

Except later, when I pulled it out of the fridge, it was still the liquid custard I had put in an hour prior.  It had failed to thicken because I missed the crucial step of warming it all up one last time.  Dessert was still fabulous, though next time, when I correctly make the pastry by reading and following every precise direction, it will be delectable rather than laughable.

10 Pictures and 2 Snakes from Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park

Last weekend, Kris and I took the pooch on a walk around the Berkeley Marina and Cesar Chavez Park.  It was an absolutely stunning September day around the Bay.  Clear skies with just the slightest hint of haze only as you looked out towards San Francisco.

The sunlight glimmered off the surface of the bay as if it was winking at you.

The sail boats not in use had erect, empty masts like skyscrapers on the water, only they bobbed with the ebb and flow of the waves.

We spotted a lot of seagulls and a couple of pelicans, loitering by the boat launching area. They must have thought they could get a free meal from fishermen’s scrapings.

Hidden in a small community garden was this cute “garden wedding” display.  I love the giraffe as witness.

Looping our way around the path that runs along the perimeter of Cesar Chavez Park, we got a spectacular view of San Francisco through a couple of layers of haze.  I love that glittering water.

Cesar Chavez is a mecca for kite flyers.  Some days you only have 10 kite flyers, other days 30 plus.  I’ve always been curious what it’s like on Kite Festival Days.

You will always hear the zooming of a master kite flyer, diving his/her kite through the air.  The wings flap frantically, and the wind hits the edges of the kite making it sound like the motor of a remote control airplane.  The kite swoops down like a bird of prey, and it looks like it’s going to crash into the ground.  At the last second, the kite flyer lifts his/her arms up and steers it back up into the air, only to dive bomb the kite again.

Lots of joggers, lots of bicyclists, but this little girl with her pink shirt, pink moccasins, pink bike, and pink ribbons streaming from her handlebars was the cutest.  She was closely following her dad and had a voice as bubblegum pink as her set of wheels.  I had purple streams coming off my handlebars when I was her age.

I was so tickled by this girl trailing her dad that I failed to notice this in the path.

Thankfully I have a husband who pays attention to what he’s doing.  He said it was just relaxing on the hot concrete path as if it were sunbathing.  A jogger started to pass us and Kris tried to warn her to watch out for the snake, but she had her headphones on.  Well, she found out about it soon enough, yelped, and almost lost her balance and fell onto the other side of the path.

It’s a quick path around this park, only 1 meandering mile, but as soon as you make the final loop, you get a view of Berkeley and UC Berkeley campus.  The tall white building is the campanile, the clock tower.

Just my luck, as I was getting excited to take the above photograph, Kris notices another slithering friend right next to my foot.

This time it was my turn to yelp, almost lose my balance, and scare the thing away.

The Case for Being Stylish Homeowners

Docket #CV 123

Case #987

Dictates of Society vs. the Ericksons

Domicile in question: single family home located in the stylish, hipster central-San Francisco Bay Area

Room in question: living room which, due to a lack of window treatments, gives passer-byes a clear view inside at ugly walls dotted with too many colors

Charges: disorderly stylish-homeowner conduct, excessive use of Behr paint samples, infringement on neighbors’ rights to see a pretty home inside a window, and style negligence

Plaintiff, please state your case and evidence.

Honorable members of hipster Bay Area society.  We of the San Francisco Bay Area have a style standard to uphold.  Around the country, the world even, people look to the Bay Area for innovation, style, panache, the next Apple product or Google acquisition, even Michael Pollan’s forthcoming book telling us how to eat.

The Ericksons are a part of our community only because of a geographical location.  Their outright rejection and refusal to participate in being stylish new Bay Area home owners has caused unprecedented torment to our aesthetically inclined community.  Their indecision in finding a color for their living room has motivated friends and family to say, and I quote, “They are a lost cause.”  Please note exhibit A, B, and C on the record as evidence.

Exhibit A: Living Room Wall- southside

Guess how many different paint samples are exposed on this single wall for the entire community to see?

Exhibit B: Southside living room wall with colors numbered

Additionally we have Exhibit C, the east-facing wall.  4 more colors for a total of 24 paint patches.  An obvious excessive use of Behr paint samples from Home Depot.

Many people retuning from a long day at work on BART have notified us of the eye-pain caused by the quilted paint look sported in the Erickson living room.  Due to the fact that they do not have curtains everyone passing by is subjected to this style negligence.  Truly this is a classic case of style unbecoming a Bay-Area homeowner.

Defense…state your case.

(looking up from reading Game of Thrones series)

Ms. Erickson?  (throat clearing in awkwardness) What do you have to say in your own style defense?

Oh.  Hi.  Ummm.  Right.  Style defense.  Ladies and gentlemen, upholders of the dictates of society.  I admit that I am a fashionably disadvantaged person.  My husband and I bought our house about a year ago, and we’ve been in a process of making this house a home.  Our home.

We’ve been having some difficulties, as the prosecution has duly noted.  We have this beautiful slate fireplace, see?

And it has such beautiful cool blue tones with splotches of terracotta browns and peachy-browns, and rich greys.  And the amazing thing about this slate fireplace is that it changes colors depending on the way the light hits it coming through the window or if it is morning or afternoon light.

Then we have these bright wooden floors, stained in a yellowy orange color with brown grain marks.  We didn’t choose this color because when we ripped out the carpet and got our floors redone we didn’t know that we could choose our floor stain color.  We just let our floor guy handle it.  Isn’t this a lovely rich warm tone though?

Please ignore the playful puppy in this photo.  Whenever we sit on the ground she thinks we are going to start wrestling.

So, our struggle has been how do we complement both a cool tone from the fireplace and a rich warm tone from the floors?

We made significant strides when we finally just went with instinct and chose a color.  Ironically one of the first 3 we put up, but that’s a story for another day.

Dictates of society: we may have mostly IKEA furniture bought from craigslist, a coffee table with a giant crack in the middle of it, and a CRV TV set that we put nick knacks on because it doesn’t work, but we have soul, and if style is anything it is instinct and soul.  This is not a case of style negligence.  I ask you to see our progress as a slow process of new, young homeowners learning to trust their instincts and discovering their sense of style.

Our No-Front Lawn Experiment Part 2: Ripping out the Sod

This is part 3 of a (highly chronologically disorganized) series about turning our front yard into a French style potager garden.  In regular people’s terms, making our front yard a kitchen garden.

One of the most important things we learned in this process is an ever present question for young, new homeowners: how do we figure out what to spend money on and what to save and do ourselves?

Here’s the overview post of the process.
Here’s how we planned out the design.
This post is about ripping out the sod.

Can we even call our “grass” sod?  It was weeds disguised as grass, lots of crab grass or Bermuda grass, I’m really not sure which.  I learned this- if the grass has a roots system that looks more like a tree’s root system, woody, thick, seemingly impenetrable- then there’s a problem, and what’s there is not normal grass.

In an attempt to save money, Kris started by trying to rip the sod out by hand, thinking it wouldn’t be that difficult.  This was before he realized the incredibly evolved root system of Bermuda grass.  In 30 minutes he got one chunk out, a line along the sidewalk.

Trust me, there is progress in this picture; it’s along the bottom edge of the grass.

Exhausted, he came back in, “Let’s rent a sod cutter,” he states.  “It’ll only be about $60.”  I agreed, realizing that for some things, machines work much better than slaving away out of cheapness.

Luckily, we have a tool rental Home Depot by our house and got the sod cutter for a 4 hour rental period.  We used it for less than 1 hour, but 4 hours was the minimum.

The machine cut through the thick ground like a sword.  It took Kris 30 minutes to get a one foot long line along the edge.  With the sod cutter, he finished the rest of the area in less than 20.

Starting at the outer edges, he circled his way around a labyrinth prayer, concentric squares into the next section.  Of course he was being extra cautious by the automatic sprinklers.  Not like we’d used them anyways- who’d want to give weeds water.

And then, there it was half of our front yard, naked as a baby.   Exposed for all our neighbors’ confusion and gossip, a symbol of the new young neighbor couple’s insanity.

Still clueless new homeowners, we thought we may be able to get rid of the sod by putting up an ad on Craigslist.  FREE SOD.  Apparently many people responded and 3 actually came to our house to check it out.

“It looks a little too dried out for me,” said the first.

“Not as much as I thought it would be, but thanks,” said the second.

The third curious person stopped by about 8 pm,  just as I was returning home from work.  I was slightly freaked out since this man in a truck seemed to be staring right at my house as I was getting out of my car and walking up the path.

“You here about the sod,” says Kris, coming out of the house to meet him.

“Yeah, but I want to take a look first,” he said smartly.  “I’ve been re-doing my sister’s back yard for free with things I’ve found on Craig’s List.”  Walking up behind me, he lists off the concrete, wood, and other findings he’s managed to get from the freebie listings.  He stops at the edge of the path, surveying the half of the yard that remains and the other half, rolled up into neat piles for one lucky person looking for grass.

“This is mierda,” he says, using the Spanish term. “Ess-Eightch-Eye-Tee.”  He looks at us as if we were idiots.  Even though it’s nighttime, his annoyed mockery is palpable.  “This is pure crabgrass.  Weeds.”  He laughs at our naïveté and his waste of time.  “Did anybody really offer to take this?”

“A few people come out to see it, but they thought it was too brown,” explains Kris, starting to doubt our grass’s nature.

“You shouldn’t give this crap away to people.”  Then the businessman’s voice comes out, after all, maybe this wasn’t a complete waste of his time.  “Thirty dollars and I’ll haul it away for you.”  Ever thrifty, we decline the offer.  My husband decided he’d take the weed-sod to the dump himself the next day while he went to get some free manure at a horse stable.  We thought that since it was green waste there wouldn’t be a dump fee.

The next day, Kris takes the day off work to dump the sod and shovel a different kind of ess-eightch-eye-tee, horse manure, for soil development.  The dump fee for the grass-weeds-sod-whatever it was, $36, not to mention the couple of hours to shovel, haul, and toss.  Thankfully the horse manure was free.

 

 

An unexpected guest in the garden

As a novice gardener, I take joy and pride in my plants’ abundance.  I get very protective of them too. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had one uninvited, unrelenting guest who won’t stop coming back.  I admit, I haven’t been a gracious hostess.  I hiss, yell, act unladylike and probably freak out my neighbors to no avail.Forgive the grittiness of the photo; I took it through the “filter” of my dining room window.

I have 3 mantras that I repeat to myself whenever it comes around: do not be fooled, do not fall prey, do not be deceived.

Do not be fooled by it’s beautiful tabby grey coloring with white marks that look like knee-high boots.  This is not Puss in Boots.

Do not fall prey to it’s small cuteness; it’s size tells me it is probably an older kitten.  Disclaimer: I use the term “kitten” loosely; it has a connotation of adorability that this unwanted guest only partially evokes in me.

Do not be deceived by its mew anytime it sees you.  It is a wail that begs, please don’t hurt me; I just want to be loved (and poop in your garden).

Let’s get real here, that is what it’s most likely doing, pooping.  It thinks that my garden is a giant litterbox- it does have a bunch of horse manure in it, so I can understand its thinking.

I’ve sprayed the hose at it (4 times), set my best garden helper, Titania, on it once (I gave the cat a little head start before I fully unleashed Titania to chase it down).  Still, despite the abuse, it returns, meows at me, and my defenses are starting to crumble.

The fact that it keeps coming back means I see it at least once a week.  The thing is starting to grow on me.  I admire its determination or stupidity; embracing paradox is an important life skill.  It is kinda cute and dainty, and it has such a plaintive meow, even after getting spraying with the hose.  That meow makes me feel guilty.  The cat still accepts me despite my abuse.  Just between me and you- I may start putting out food for it.

My First Half Marathon!! Part 1: Night Before Preparation

I started in February barely able to run an entire mile, and yet on Sunday, June 5, 2011, I ran my first 1/2 marathon, 13.1 miles.  What an incredible feat.  I have so much to tell that I’m going to make it into 3 (it used to be 2) posts, so part one is about preparation the night before.  Part 2 will be the hilarious pre-race happenings.  Part 3 will relate my experience during the race.  Enjoy.Kris helped me prepare the night before.  Since it’s been sporadically showering in NorCal the past couple of days, I was anxiously expecting rain and having to run 13.1 miles in showers.  Kris had me lay out my clothes for his inspection: black running pants (borrowed from my mom, so they are a petite size and sometimes look like floods), my teal sports bra, teal tank top, and husband-borrowed long sleeved-mesh top.  There’s a reason I’m called “kleptomaniac” by my family members.  Kris also scoured our camping gear for an old rain cover he used back in his running days; it would keep me reasonably dry.

We also packed a change of clothes.  I knew that if I was going to be sopping wet, I’d want to change the first instant that I could and wrap my feet in my fake Uggs.We got simple snacks ready for after the race.  Kris said I’d be very hungry, boy was he right about that.  Those green apples were some of the most delicious apples I’ve ever had in my life.  They were juicy and sweet, light, crisp and refreshing; perfect for after the race, water and a little sugar and fiber.We looked at the course map and planned out four places Kris would meet me at.  For Kris, we got a blanket, umbrella, extra jacket, folding chair, plus the current book he’s reading.Of course if there was anything that would get me though this race it would be water and music.  I made some last minute purchases on itunes for my “Pump It” playlist, both recommendations from students; they seem to be more up to speed on current music trends.  I definitely made sure that the ipod was charged.  Kris got a gallon of water ready (he thought I might get thirsty); in addition 2 water bottles to swap in case I needed more.  We placed these at the entry table.  Right, in case we forgot everything else, at least I’d have water and music.I was so nervous the night before, and when I get nervous, I have to pee A LOT.  In the 2 hour period before going to bed, I must have gone to the bathroom 6-7 times, and that’s not an exaggeration.   Insomnia also plagues me when I am nervous, and I got about 4 hours of solid sleep.

At 6 am, with the sun peeking its way behind the clouds, we set out.  It was a beautiful morning, the kind that can come only after a hard rain like Saturday’s.  The air was clean, fresh, and held a sense of anticipation for the day to begin.  Here’s the first photo of the day; it’s all fake bravado by the way.Part 2: Gettin’ Ready during Pre-Race soon to come.