Sunday, January 9, 2011

Out of Business

I must start with a cliché, because it's so apt:

It is with mixed emotions that I announce my retirement. Meals by Marlene is no longer in business.

My little personal chef business was the first time I'd ever had free reign to create something from scratch. It has been exciting, up-lifting, and fun. I've learned more than I ever imagined, and amazed at my own capabilities and creativity. I never knew I had it in me.

Yet I am closing my business voluntarily. Yes, clients have been few, but I've have had some work. I am at least covering my expenses, with a little money left over. Perhaps if business were better, I would hang on for a while longer. This is part of why I'm closing.

Mostly though, it's so I can concentrate on other things. My husband has retired, and we have many plans for our time. I'm teaching natural childbirth classes, and I am writing. Both of these endeavors take a lot of time and effort, especially the writing. I want to be published, and that means working it for all I can.

I haven't decided whether to stop this blog. I haven't been posting lately, but my interest in food will never fade, and there is still a lot to talk about. I could post it all on my other blog, at, but that is mostly for writing-related topics. Still, it's something I'm thinking about.

If you've found me through a search engine, I encourage you to check out the other chefs in the Bay Area. Go to to search for a listing. There's a talented group serving the area!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Review: A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove

This book has been on my shelf for a couple of years, but I finally got to it. I'm glad I did, it's a great book. Written by Laura Schenone, the book covers the history of women and cooking. It concentrates on the U.S., but she touches on other cultures, as well, especially at the beginning. After all, the women cooking in this part of the world a thousand years ago, were not - ahem - Americans.

There are lots of pictures and illustrations, bringing to life the clothing, backgrounds, and tools of earlier eras. I love old pictures. I love seeing people of history, going about their daily lives.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of discrimination in our history. Women have rarely been allowed to function to their fullest potential. It almost seems as if the closest culture to come to it, were the hunter/gatherer societies. Once humanity settled into "civilization," women were tied to the service of men.

In ten chapters, Ms. Schenone talks about how women and food figure into creation myths, shows women moving to new lands and learning the plants and animals to use, and always comes back to the female trait of nurturing.  Whatever women faced, in a world over which they had little control, they always made it their duty to feed everyone. I wonder if this is an extension of our ability to provide the first and only food, for the first six months of a human being's life.

Cooking in America is covered in detail, and even here (especially here) women do not escape bondage. Subject to political will (or lack thereof), male business greed, pollution, weather, and war, American women always prepared food.  They tried to recreate the dishes of their native countries, learned how to prepare the strange plants of their new land, turned over their abilities to "the Experts," and embraced technology in the kitchen.

As with any book about food, I found recipes I wanted to try, especially Grandma Louise's Peach Pie Supreme. Not the Scrapple, though.

Wine Misadventures

I like everything about Autumn, and this one is no exception. My mood has been iffy, but the weather and color (and pumpkins) are only helping.

We finished the wine yesterday. The learning curve is steep on this undertaking. I'm glad I did it, and I hope to do it again. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that this attempt will turn out all right.

We had trouble with our bucket throughout the experiment. The spout leaked the whole time. Just a smidge - but every day, more wine escaped around the rim of the spout. We tried to fix it every time we racked the wine, but it did no good.

Nevertheless, the wine tastes good. It's not great...  but I've had worse. It will be really cool if it improves with age.

Bottling wine happens in a series of steps. We had lots of instructions - the book that came with the kit, plus articles I got online - but they all neglected the same step.

How do you get the wine from the bucket... to the bottle?

Siphon, probably. But we could both just picture us holding the hose in the bottle as it fills up, and not being able to stop the flow, and ending up with wine all over the kitchen.

But let me backtrack. First, I've been saving wine bottles, washing them and removing the labels. It turns out we only wanted dark bottles, since our wine is red. In order to sterilize the bottles, I did some dishwasher voodoo, trying to stack as many bottles as possible in positions that would allow them to drain, AND not get hit by the rotating blade.

That was a hassle. But easier than boiling the bottles.

When it came time to fill the bottles, we moved our bucket to the counter, placing it on top of an upside pan, to give us room for the bottles under the spigot (in the sink).

Then I made a mistake - something like the hundredth mistake of the process. I tasted the wine and added sugar to adjust the flavor. It was REALLY tart. It's still tart, but much better. This is very dry wine. But my mistake was that I should have added some potassium sorbate to the wine, before I added sugar.

Once the sugar's in the wine, it's too late to add the potassium. It's purpose is to prevent any further fermentation, but it can't stop it if it's already started. If you add sugar first... well.

So what did I do? Not a damn thing. I'm tired by this time. I'm pretty sure the wine will be a failure anyway. (Perhaps we should refer back to my iffy mood mentioned earlier). So screw it - we're bottling this wine.

We did it the cheating way, by placing the bottles under the spigot and letting the wine run into the bottles. There was no sediment - this wine is lovely and clear. We filled up 13 1/2 bottles. Quite cool.

The next adventure was corking. We had mushroom corks, which came in the wine kit, the kind with a plastic lid attached. Following all the myriad instructions, we boiled some water, removed it from the heat, and soaked the corks for a couple of minutes. Then we began inserting corks into bottles.

The corks came right back out.

Seriously. They just worked their way right up, refusing to STAY in the bottle. Air pressure, y'know. Further research allowed as to how this was quite normal behavior for mushroom corks, and one must apply a "trick". The trick is to place a flexible wire in the bottle (keeping hold of the end), insert the cork, and while holding the cork firmly in place, draw out the wire. This creates a path for the air to escape the bottle, and allows the cork to seal as the air escapes.

Excuse me, but you do realize you can't stick any old wire in your bottle of wine? None of the instructions said so, but I wasn't grabbing a wire from the garage and throwing it in my bottle without sterilizing it first. This meant I had to boil more water and cook the wire for several minutes.

I sure hope that damn thing got sterilized.

But it worked beautifully. Except... you know those plastic lids attached to the corks? You can't let stay in the water too long. Or let the water be too hot. Those lids melt. We lost a few corks to this phenomenon. Some of the corks seemed to work okay, but they look strange.

Anyway. We have thirteen bottles filled and corked. Next step: shrinkwrap around the cork and neck of the bottle. These also came in our kit, and it turned out to be the funnest part of the job. We boiled water (again), and placed the gold wrapper over the top of the bottle. A rubber band is attached from top to bottom of the bottle to hold it in place. Then the bottle is turned upside down and lowered into the water for about 3 seconds.

Lessons Learned here: The water must remain boiling the entire time. Cooler water will not work.
The water must be deep enough to cover the entire wrapping. Submerge it all the way.

After a few more "mistakes," our bottles were all filled, corked, and wrapped. They look almost like real bottles of wine!

Last step: the label. Yes, these also came with the kit. They're hokey, but so what. We fiddled around with the idea of writing out our information and printing it on mailing labels to stick on the fancy labels. I think of things like this because I have awful handwriting. Rick has beautiful handwriting, but I felt bad asking him to write out 13 labels.

But in the end, that's what we did. Here's the result:

The labels say:

It's a Marickal!
Plum Wine

"Marickal" is a combination of our names, and a play on the word miracle, which I'm sure you figured out. We were so surprised to get this far. We have a couple of bottles to use as beta testers. If the wine in those holds up (i.e., doesn't grow mold or something over the next month or so), we'll give the wine out as gifts.

Got any wood to knock on?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fumbling Garden Witchery

I took a break from synopsis writing to play in the yard for a while. I pulled some weeds, watered a little, argued a bit with the crab grass.  It's so wonderful out there. The weather is perfect these days: warm during the day, with bright sun and clear skies. Nights are getting cool.

I can tell the soil is changing, shifting toward its winter softness. It hasn't rained yet, and the soil is still hard as cement, mind you. But its different than it was a few weeks ago. Like it's breathing. Getting ready to wake up. Around here, summer is a time of hibernation because it's too dry and hot for critters to move through the soil. Spring and autumn are the living times, with flowers popping out, and worms working their way through soft, loamy soil.

Time to reflect and admire and yes, work, since it's cool enough to be out there for a few hours.

But look what I found!

There are THREE limes in this picture! Can you see them all? There are five on the tree, for the first time, ever! They are still hard, so I didn't pick them. I'm not sure how they'll turn out - this poor tree has struggled all its life, due to my neglect. For one thing, I've kept it in a pot, and I've been awful about feeding it. In fact, I haven't fed it at all, other than to occasionally throw some diluted coffee water into the pot. There is no doubt I don't deserve these limes. But I jumped for joy anyway, and told the little tree how lovely it was, and took its picture.

Excitement abounds.

Here's a garden question: we have this tree, a silk tree (also called a mimosa). My husband likes it. Me? I admit it's a gorgeous tree in the spring and early summer. Those flowers can't be beat, and the hummingbirds and bees love them.

But the tree does this:

All that Brown Stuff on the ground? Dried flowers and pods from the tree. This is a BIG tree and its canopy spreads over half the yard. This stuff is everywhere, several inches thick. Good mulch, I suppose, but the problem is that it covers all the other plants. It sticks to the leaves and flowers and branches of everything. It looks awful.

I shake, rake, or brush it off (more like pick it off, it doesn't really do "brush"). But it's such a hassle. And until I get to it, it just sits there looking ugly.

Then there's this:

This is my jasmine. As you can see, it's surrounded by the Brown Stuff. It WAS covered with it, but I just finished shaking and picking.  There's still a lot trapped in the inner parts of the plant, but I'm concerned about black widows living in there. Not sticking my hand in.

Anyway, this plant is amazing. It started life in a little pot picked up at Whole Foods. I never water it.  It's now about four feet across and three feet tall. It's a spreading plant and would probably be happier on a trellis. I thought it might climb up the fence, but I guess it wants something to wrap around. So it just sits in a tangled clump and grows bigger. Should I go ahead and give it a trellis and try to untangle some of the branches? Or try to get it to spread out along the ground? Should I rake up the Brown Stuff, or leave it there as mulch? It's okay on the ground, I just hate it covering up the plants.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wine Report

It's been three weeks since we racked the plum wine, so it was time to re-rack, and lose some sediment. It was also the Big Check - is it wine, yet?

Oh, yes.

After we siphoned it into a new bucket, we took a taste. It's very dry, which I think is wonderful. I prefer dry wines, and I was afraid this would be too sweet, since it started with plums.  But, no. It's VERY dry.

I think it's almost perfect, but Rick wasn't sure. According to the instructions, if we want it sweeter, we can add sugar just before we bottle it. So we'll decide then.

It's also done fermenting. The SG is 1.006, which means there's almost no sugar left. What's the alcohol content? Well, that's an inaccurate guess, due to my faulty record-keeping. We need to know the starting SG, and I forgot to write that down.

But I do know it was in the normal range for starting wine. So we have a range of 7%-12% alcohol. I think it's at a reasonable level, because what we tasted (about a 1/4 cup each) was enough to provide the beginnings of a tipsy feeling.

I'm excited about it. We'll let it sit for a month or two more, to get rid of more sediment. Depending on how clear it looks at that point, we might bottle it.

Next year, I'll make an effort to use all our plums and make a bunch of wine. This is great stuff.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Even Better Pickles

My pickle kick is continuing unabated. We eat a little bit every day. But I've discovered that I'm not quite on the right track with the pickle thing.

Pickled foods are the right idea, but the REAL idea is fermented food. The vinegar-sugar route is a short-cut.

So I'm trying it the old-fashioned way.

I sliced up some cucumbers, onions, and carrots. These were all mixed together in a bowl with 2 tbsp sea salt, a few cloves of garlic, and some mustard seeds. The idea is to mix and mash for 4 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables have reduced and let off a lot of their juices.

Then I packed them into jars (which I first sterilized). I filled the jars to the top, making sure there was plenty of the liquid covering the veggies.

Aren't they beautiful? The jars are left on the counter for three days, with a loose lid. After that, they can be stored a few more days in a cabinet, then refrigerated.

I really want to be able to store these things in a cabinet, to have veggies throughout the winter. In the past, I think people kept them in their basements or someplace very cool. Perhaps I can keep them in our garage. It stays plenty cold in the winter. But for now, I think the jars have to be refrigerated, which is disappointing.

The quandary is, the vegetables are in season now, so now is the time to ferment them. But I don't have a cool place to keep them.

I'll have to work on that.

Oh, and one tip I found out about: putting a grape leaf in the jar keeps the vegetables crisp. So I "borrowed" a few leaves from our neighbor's vines that grow over our fence.  We'll see if it works.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wind Dancer Ranch

I've been waiting to write this entry because I wanted to give it the time and attention it deserved. I need to get to it, before I forget everything that happened.

A few weeks ago, I went up to Wind Dancer Ranch in Yolo County, to "cut and wrap" my portion of a pig. I split the hog with two other people from the Bay Area Meat CSA. One person took half, the other half was split between me and one other person.

This was such an incredible experience! I feel bad, because I don't have the pictures I wanted. This is my fault - I've got to learn to be better about that. But I didn't get any pictures of the farm itself, despite the fact that the owners, Lisa and Jim, took us on a grand tour.

These two people are amazing - working regular jobs in addition to fixing up and running this old, abandoned farm. We could see how much they've accomplished, and how much they still have to do! But they just jump in work until its done. These are the real heroes of American life.

Wind Dancer has several animals: the pigs, of course, and chickens, turkeys, sheep, rabbits, horses... I had one of their turkeys for Thanksgiving last year, and it was wonderful.

They also have a garden, of course, but don't grow crops to sell. They do grow feed for the animals.

It was a hot day, which made it difficult for the weak city dwellers to concentrate. I brought my 14-year old grandson with me, and he was very impressed. He'd never been exposed to this kind of thing, but he loved it. He even asked if he could come work with them next summer! He couldn't do it this year, because he has a broken arm.

The highlight of the day, was learning to cut the hog. They had already cut it into quarters, so we dealt with the front and hind quarters of our half. We all gathered in Lisa's kitchen, where she has a marvelous wooden table.

She supplied us with cutting boards and knives, and with Jim helping, we proceeded to trim away the rough, pinkish remainder of skin from the fat areas. This was a very thin layer - you can sort of see it along the edge of the fat in this picture.

Jim gave us lots of direction as we sliced, and helped quite a bit with the hard parts. Strength-wise, I'm a wash.

We made sausage with a lot of the meat, using spices we brought from home. Lisa contributed any extras we needed.

This was an incredible experience. Lisa and Jim are working on a real "butchering room" which will have tables, large sinks, commercial refrigerators, and all the huge equipment this job requires. Including, hopefully, a commercial-grade food wrap machine. The little one we used kept stalling, and stretched things out far longer than we'd planned on. But they're talking about having classes for butchering or canning... whole weekends when people can stay in a guest house at the farm and spend time with others who want to learn these important skills. Or who just want to have fun with others while they work!

I had such a great time up there, and I hope I get back. It will take us a while to use all the meat we got. But I do need variety - some lamb, perhaps, or a rabbit or two. Maybe chickens. Another turkey, for sure! But thank you, Jim and Lisa, for all your hard work and help. Good luck to both of you!