Summer Squash Salad + Garden Lessons: Fences

One of the advantages of having a backyard is the possibility of growing food, cultivating flowers, both for our enjoyment and for the bees, and creating a nurturing environment for all . Since we moved in to this house we have slowly reshaped the backyard to create a garden where us and the critters can live in harmony. Something the bunnies don’t want to align with their eating habits. In past years they ate the carrot, beet and peas sprouts, chomped on the beans, herbs, and flowers, dug the bulbs: daffodils, tulips, and garlic, and reigned the garden beds at night and whenever we were not around.

This year, after the first few offenders began digging bulbs and eating sprouts, I asked Scott to build some sort of barrier to give the plants a chance to grow and give us a decent harvest. For the ground level beds, where the flowers and a few herbs reside, he built a PVC pipe structure and wrapped bird netting around it, for the two raised beds where I planted and sowed all the vegetables, he used flexible pipes and created a dome on which we laid the netting securing it on the edges with bricks and clamps. It worked. Or so I thought. 

 

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Slow Food Nations Denver

Slow Food Nations, a gathering of people from around the world centered on food, made Denver the epicenter of conversations that revolved around food freedom, sovereignty, taste, cooking, farming and everything in between. On Saturday morning a panel led by Slow Food’s founder and president Carlo Petrini addressed, with contagious passion, a flock of hungry for fair food followers on the streets of downtown Denver. 

“We must have global consciousness around food,” said Petrini, “a vision that is local, that allows us to know, respect and support our local producers, our local food, and our local community… at the same time we ought to have a global vision of food and value other communities the same way.” 

This is the second time Slow Food has chosen Denver to bring voices around real and fair food for all. In 2015, the conversation revolved around Slow Meat, questioning the meat production processes and systems established in the U.S. and the record meat consumption of our growing society. 

Slow Food changed the way I see food. For more than a decade I have followed this grassroots organization and its philosophy that good food is a right not a luxury. It was Alice Waters who first introduced me to Slow Food when I became enchanted by her vision and passion for supporting local farmers, for eating a summer peach with the pleasure and excitement of a once a year occasion, and for her relentless dedication for change in our food system, beginning with educating children through direct immersion in school gardens.

This weekend I met Alice Waters, I sat in two of her talks and relished in her ideology of “seducing people through taste,” as she said. Waters, as many of the important public food figures who visited us this weekend, believes that if we put our efforts together we, all of us, can help change our toxic food system. “I can’t think about food without thinking about the land,” she said, and her sentiment carried out through the conversations and the different events held over the weekend. Denver chefs and visiting chefs from around the country and the world put together dinners to honor the land, the sea, and the cultures, including flavors of Mexico, sustainable seafood, heritage grains, plus many workshops in techniques like sourdough bread, cheesemaking, butchering, and more. 

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Living Paris

Paris is a place to celebrate big milestones; our tenth wedding anniversary, my 40th birthday, our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and my husband’s 40th birthday. Each trip devoted to learning more about the city, walking its streets, sitting at a café and drinking a few glasses of house rosé or a couple of coffees, visiting the farmer’s market and fantasizing about having a small flat around the 3rd or 11th arrondissement from where we could walk to the bakery every morning and buy croissants and pain au chocolat, or go to the market on the weekends to buy fish and groceries and flowers and sit on a bench eating an authentic falafel wrap. Each trip is an attempt at Living Paris

The RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to Paris links the reality of a heavily diverse city to our fantasies of french speaking, macarons, and duck confit. La Gare Du Nord is a chaotic, organized mess where patrons rush through walking highways to the train platforms. Underground the city is ugly, unsettling, and real. 

The city up the stairs is a breath of fresh air. Out of its cavernous veins the dream of Paris becomes a reality. 

Les Marais 
Our first trip we rented a studio apartment in Les Marais neighborhood near the Arts et Métiers train station. I love that station. Copper walls that arch around the ceiling holding cooper wheels and pinions suspended beneath the ancient streets, and the submarine-like windows displaying magical images from Jules Verne’s science fiction books.

My husband got up early each morning to try the different bakeries around the block until he finally settled for Earnest and Valentine, the pain au chocolat won him over. From our studio on the Rue Montgolfier we walked to Rue de Bretagne to buy groceries and rotisserie chicken for lunch or dinner, depending on our plans for the day. On the same street we found the Marché des Enfant Rouges, an indoor market and dining hall, and around the corner we lunched on bento boxes at Nanashi Asian Bistro.

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A day around Modena and a Cheese excursion

For my husband’s 40th birthday, we planned a trip to Italy to eat and drink until our hips were unrecognizable. Everyone told us it was an easy task to accomplish; one of his coworkers said he gained 18 lbs {eighteen pounds (!)} on a week-long trip to the land of pasta, prosciutto and parmegiano-reggiano; so we set out on a goal to learn about the culture, one pound at the time.

After a quick stop in Paris {more about that in another post}, we flew to Bologna where we picked up our car rental, a Mini, as my husband wanted to surprised me and indulge my unreasonable obsession with the tiny car. This was the bigger, 4-door version, which is like wanting to eat prosciutto and ordering Easter ham instead, it is pork, it is cured, it is not prosciutto. The Mini is a mix of advance machinery and old style glam, pretty leather seats, race car dashboard and incomprehensible computerized entertainment and navigation system.  While we fiddled with the car and the GPS, it began to rain. The black-grey skies circled overhead and the GPS lady couldn’t find her way out of the roundabout onto the highway. 

We had rented an Airb&b apartment in Modena, about an hour drive from Bologna, and the heavy rain followed us all the way to the parking lot our host had suggested for us to leave the car and drag our suitcases to the apartment, because driving in the historic area of town is a privilege for only those with a resident sticker on the windshield of their cars. We sat in the car looking at deep puddles around the parking lot unwilling to soak our entire wardrobe on the first day. We walked to the apartment, without bags, assessed the street situation, went back to the car with drenched shoes and socks, broke the law by driving to the apartment building, jumped out of the car, dumped the bags on the street, I stayed behind and struggled with the bags up four sets of stairs – no elevator-  and my husband drove away. So far no arrest has been made. It rained all night, many pairs of socks were soaked in the making of these memories. 

After a hot cup of coffee and fresh pair of socks and shoes, we put on our rain coats, opened our umbrellas, and set out to explore Modena. The lights shined on the wet roads as we hustled from building to building in an attempt to stay somewhat dry on our way to the local market, Mercato Albinelli, which to our luck stays open late on Saturdays. The front door was adorned with basil, thyme, and rosemary planters, and piles of strawberries and asparagus. Dozens of vendors offering meats, vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto, culatello, porchetta – oh the porchetta! – anything one could need for a homemade meal, I wanted to buy it all, I dreamt of walking there everyday with a my shopping basket to buy the day’s fresh produce chatting with the vendors in Italian, and eating prosciutto for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

After our shopping we walked back to the Piazza Grande and experienced our first aperitivo, the Italian version of happy hour where the restaurant or bar puts out an impressive display of food, banquet style, and the patrons pay a minimal fee, in our case at Caffe Concerto we paid €5 each, for an all-you-can-eat {read all the prosciutto you can eat} buffet, plus the cost of drinks. At this point, one day in, I began to worry about whether we could walk, waddle, or roll by the end of our Italian journey.  

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Berry Coffee Cake with Almond Topping

The weather outside is trouble. Hail and flooding rains attacking the garden, the same little plants that witnessed the heavy, steady, and unwelcome snow last week. Just a few days ago we enjoyed 70 degree radiant afternoons, tilling the ground and watching the pea plants grow and the lettuce beds populate. 

I’ve had enough. Winter, you had your chance, it’s spring! It’s May, and even the grass is tired of you. 

I’m ready for color explosions from poppies, columbines, calendula and chamomile flowers. I’m itching to plant tomatoes, peppers, beans and sunflowers; and for long evenings sitting on the patio with a chilled glass of anything, preferably a rosé but at this point i’ll take anything over a hot tea. 

To undermine the rude and constant interruption of spring, I made one of my favorite coffee cakes, fresh berries with almond topping. 

berryalmondcoffeecake

I first made this recipe a decade ago when I was working at the museum, it worked great for afternoon tea and coffee gatherings that didn’t require highly stylized desserts, but called for delicious and comforting baked goods. 

I found this recipe in the book from a once iconic bakeshop and cafe in New York City, Once Upon Tart. The shop still exist, but more as a staple of the SoHo neighborhood rather than the groundbreaking shop I, once, longed to visit. A clear representation of how quickly food businesses can go out of style and replaced by trendy, hipster new spots. 

This book remains one of my favorite cookbooks, even after a decade of paging through it and splattering vanilla extract and buttermilk on it. It’s full of tips and ideas on everything from simple salads and soups, to cozy baked goods, plus I like to read the headnotes that tell the story of each item. I like context when I read and cook a recipe, especially as I dive deeper into food as a cultural glue of people.  

The head note for this recipe says, “This is not your average coffee cake,” and I agree. I’m not a fan of coffee cakes because they tend to be too sweet, just cake with little fruit. This one is packed with berries on each bite, and it is the only coffee cake I ever make. I follow their advise in the fall and make it with apples, which are delicious with the almond topping and an added dash of cinnamon. 

coffeecakeberryalmond

I’m following the original recipe as spring calls for berries, well not in Colorado. Berries are available from California this time of the year, where crazy snow and hail are reserved for mountain tops. Here in Colorado, we don’t see strawberries until mid June, if the weather doesn’t destroy crops, but until then California fruit will have to do. 

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Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Last spring, I went to Mexico for work. We visited the state of Oaxaca, a word I learned to pronounce when I learnt about the trip. It isn’t a Spanish word but rather an inheritance of the native language of the region. This was a theme I encountered while traveling and conversing with the inhabitants of the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. 

We settled in Puerto Escondido to visit a school as part of a partnership with the university I work for, and traveled around the area visiting turtle and iguana sanctuaries, multiple beach towns and eating local specialties like Oaxacan cheese and the fisherman’s day-catch. 

The best way to reach Puerto Escondido, or “Hidden Port”, is by air. There are roads from the big cities but the trek is long and uncertain, as the locals told us. By air is an hour fly from Mexico City in a 40-passenger plane battling shifting winds. The view from the low-flying plane is wide and mountainous, especially when leaving Mexico City where El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet) peaks frame the scene. 

We arrived in Puerto Escondido at 6p.m., after leaving Denver at 5a.m., due to a three-hour delay in Mexico City. The landscape changed as we approached our destination. The plane swarmed around the coastline charging toward the ocean and descending as a graceful goose preparing to land in the water, with a gently tilt we turned around to face the airport and the tiny runway. I won’t lie, it was frightening and I mistrusted the entire situation, thankfully the pilot proved me wrong with a smooth landing. 

The sticky hot air blew as we walked from the plane into baggage claim where our host waited for us. “Welcome! How was your flight?” they asked with big, warm smiles as we exchanged hugs and kisses on the cheeks. “Beautiful!” I replied while walking to the van for a 5-minute ride to the hotel. The sunset was a minute away from exploding in orange and gold hues and we rushed from the parking lot of the hotel to the pool where the uninterrupted view allowed the magic of the sun to glow on the palm trees. 

Puerto Escondido is a small enough town to create a feeling of community, but large enough to have multiple traffic lights and crowded streets, and a food market covering four blocks. Nearby towns provide an oasis for tourist, with restaurants on the sand where the chairs sink as you sit and hammocks strung from bamboo poles under kiosks beg to be used. We visited during the low season and enjoyed the solitude of beaches barely sprinkled with tourist. Our host told us, “Next week is Easter and for two weeks you won’t find a place to stand on the beach, let alone lounge and leisure, plus prices double.”


The Market


The next morning, after a walk, barefoot on the blonde sand,  we went to the market with a student from the school working as our guide. The warehouse-like building crowded with piles of mangoes and pineapples brought me back to my younger days in Colombia and the melancholy of sweet, ripe tropical fruit memories. We stopped at a booth selling peppers, fresh and dried, and homemade sauces where my boss decided to try his spice resistance, a brave move if you’d asked me as my spice resistance stays at 0 on the Scoville scale – or the equivalent of a sweet bell pepper. Continue reading Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Race to Fall

It has been a race, 500 Km style. We have been everywhere in the past few months, it seems. Massachusetts, California (twice), Wyoming, Austin, and camping in the mountains. Canning and preserving the summer harvest have consumed the weekends at home. And work, including a couple invitations I had to speak in conferences, have accelerated the passing of summer.

In the midst of all the traveling and summer craziness,  we decided to start a backyard landscaping project, done exclusively by us. Including digging out all sprinkler system pipes and changing their routes, removing the old, dried sod, tilling the ground, digging a 9’x11′ area and building a patio, planning and planting a brand new xeriscaped garden, shoveling 4 tons of sand and 8 tons of rock, and planting new sod.

basil plants

The project is partially done, after 5 weekends, plus numerous bruises and blisters. But the patio still looks like a junk yard, with shovels and other tools scattered around, piles of dirt next to trenches holding the new pipes, half dead plants after the first freeze of the season, and ghost-like tomato plants covered to force the fruit to ripen before the season is over.

picklingcucumber zucchiniplantwithfrostbite

Why such a drastic project you might ask?

Water. Continue reading Race to Fall