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Victory! Or, I found a garden (for the time being)

When I looked for apartments near my work in Oakland, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I knew I had some very simple, non-negotiable criteria: I wanted to be able to walk to and from work. I wanted a decent kitchen. I wanted something safe, and I wanted to try to avoid paying my entire annual salary in rent.

Slow Food Nation's Victory Garden sits in the shadow of City Hall.

Slow Food Nation's Victory Garden sits in the shadow of City Hall.

It might come as a surprise, based on the name of this blog, that having some space to garden or plant was not on that non-negotiable list. But I had this feeling that, somehow, I’d figure out a way to get my hands in the dirt, even if that way was unconventional.

Sure enough, a way presented itself. Slow Food Nation is bringing its foodie parade to town over Labor Day Weekend, and one aspect of the conference/festival /concert/celebrity-chef-sighting-opportunity is the Victory Garden planted in front of San Francisco’s City Hall.

Patterned after the Victory Gardens that fed the nation during World War II, the main garden at Civic Center is slated to provide fresh vegetables a few weeks after the Slow Food Nation gathering to those with limited access to produce in San Francisco.

The garden’s been attracting a little bit of nay-saying, particularly over at Garden Rant and the San Francisco Bay Guardian Politics blog. It’s temporary, they say. It’s expensive and a waste of resources. It’s a photo op. It’s a pale imitation of a real urban gardening program.

Victory gardener at work

Victory gardener at work

I went down to see the garden on my birthday, the day after it was planted, and I’ll admit, the temporary nature of the garden surprised me. I expected something much more permanent. But I have also noticed that I have yet to mention the project to anyone who hasn’t heard about it and who doesn’t think community gardening is a good idea.

Now, to be fair, a lot of people I talk to in my ordinary life are foodies, gardeners, or public health folks who are predisposed to applaud veggies growing just down the steps of City Hall. But this story is being told, and there are people making sure the story doesn’t end on Labor Day. Besides, Alice Waters is behind this, and I defy anyone to say she’s not vehemently committed to the principle of equal access to fresh, local produce for all. This might be a photo op, but awareness has to start being raised somehow.

Regardless, I’ll be able to get a firsthand glimpse of how the garden is growing and how people are responding to it. Starting Sunday morning, I take my first turn as a garden docent, a volunteer position that might include giving garden tours, answering questions about vegetables (Apparently the volunteer coordinator doesn’t read this blog…), and helping with garden maintenance.

I may not have my own garden right now, but I’m about to start experiencing the photo op up close, and I can’t wait to get in there and see what it’s all about.

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The report from BlogHer ’08

If you’ve been following my Twitter account over the past few days and weren’t a BlogHer ’08 attendee, you’re probably about ready to abandon me, either because you wanted to be there and are madly jealous, or because you couldn’t give a whit about the conference and you would prefer I stick to my regular Twitter diet of odd musings about my walking commute down Oakland’s mean streets.

Note to those of you in the former category: keep an eye on registration for next year, because the conference keeps getting better and better.

But, to appease those in the latter category, I promise that the BlogHer-related Tweets will careen to a halt, and that this will wrap up my formal coverage of BlogHer ’08 for the week. Or the month. Or some other time period as yet to be determined.

Regardless, the conference provided one of the best opportunities in women’s blogging to put faces with words, and to meet new bloggers who I had not yet stumbled across in my prodigious RSS feed reading. One can never have too many posts in one’s feed reader, I always say.

OK, I never say that. But this is the age of the Internet, so I’m at least trying to get that phrase into circulation. It’s better if you say it in a slightly snooty accent, by the way.

I did end up going with my tagline (“It’s amazing what I’ll do for a good tomato.”) for Kalyn’s Food Bloggers’ Birds of a Feather gathering. Others interpreted the 10-word assignment a little differently, either stringing together 10 random words or not following Kalyn’s guidelines at all, or, in the case of one hapless PR person, meandering through a pitch for whatever site she represented (it does not speak well of her pitch that I cannot remember what she was talking about…) until she got to about word 75 and Kalyn reminded her diplomatically and firmly of all the other people patiently waiting to speak.

Friday night featured a terrific dinner at R&G Lounge with a bevy of amazing food bloggers: Kathy of Panini Happy, Andrea of Andrea’s Recipes, Shuna of Eggbeater, Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen, Sean of Hedonia, Elise of Simply Recipes (Thanks for the mug, Elise!), Lydia of The Perfect Pantry, Sara of Ms. Adventures in Italy, Amy of Cooking with Amy, Claire of Cookthink (Thanks for the tea towel, Claire!), Jennifer Jeffrey and myself. If I forgot someone, which I hope I did not, bug me via comments and I’ll happily update.

On Saturday, I finally got to meet Deb Roby, who is a Home, Garden and DIY editor for BlogHer and who also blogs at A Stitch in Time and Weight for Deb. She hosted a Home, Garden and DIY Birds of a Feather gathering Saturday that ranged through a variety of topics from everyone’s secret resources to sustainable products for the home.

On Sunday, I hit the UnConference, which is a free-form event where the attendees determine the agenda and take the discussion in whatever direction works best for all the small groups of participants. The move to Oakland has spurred me on to taking a closer look at my blog and where it’s going in its next phase (It’s like a teenager, this blog, with its phases and its moodiness and its storming around from topic to topic…), and I just happened to stand up and call for a session on going through a blog brand transition at the same time that Diana, maven of Of The Princess And The Pea, stood up and requested the same thing. We combined forces and ran the session together, and for those of you who joined that discussion, I promise to have the notes up by the end of this coming weekend.

I wrapped up the UnConference by spending about 45 minutes chatting with the only other Genie I’ve ever met in person—Genie Alisa of In a Bottle. We started the conversation by talking about WordPress, but moved on to life, how we depict it on our respective blogs, and how that affects the people around us and our relationships with them.

It was just the kind of discussion that makes BlogHer so rewarding—from a common platform, women who didn’t even read each others’ work before the weekend began went home feeling that much more connected to a larger community of women trying to do just the same thing: Tell a story, raise a hand and ask a question that might change the way someone else thinks, and maybe even make the world—online and offline—a little more beautiful.

Enchiladas for the journey

Remember how I said on Thursday night that I push deadlines but don’t miss them and that I’d report back about BlogHer, um, yesterday?

Well, make that tomorrow. The conference is still going on, it’s been an amazing weekend of networking and experiences and the occasional gratis glass of Prosecco (OK, maybe the occasional two glasses?), and I’ve gotten very little sleep because even when I get home, my brain is racing so hard I can’t get myself to go to bed.

And, in the meantime, I have a story to tell that has nothing to do with BlogHer, but is time-sensitive. Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen has made some tweaks to the rules for Weekend Herb Blogging, and technically, this story fits under the rubric of the old rules rather than the new. The new rules go into effect this coming week, so today is my last day to sneak this in under the wire. Sure, I could just post it without participating in WHB, but where would be the camaraderie in that?

And see? I’m just making a deadline!

So, even though I’m writing this from a conference room on Union Square in San Francisco, this goes back to my last days in Iowa, for a recipe that, much like my move to California, is not so much specific measurements, and more a wing-and-prayer approach of combining things that go well together, tossing them in the oven to bake, and enjoying what comes out.

I spent the first half of my last week in Iowa in California, actually, looking for an apartment. It was a crazy weekend of hoofing it around Oakland, following leads off Craigslist and taking deep gulps at the rents and the deposits required to move in. I signed a lease that Tuesday evening, boarded a red-eye back to Cedar Rapids, and then crawled into bed as soon as I got home in an attempt to avoid the amount of packing I had to finish in three days.

Because the move happened so quickly, I didn’t really have a chance to properly eat down all the food in my fridge and freezer, and because the winter had been so fraught with delayed travel, I hadn’t been home enough or rested enough to manage the proper cooking program I usually maintain.

This meant I still had some slow-roasted tomatoes in the freezer, and as anyone who reads Kalyn or Alanna of Kitchen Parade knows, you don’t waste slow-roasted tomatoes.

I also had made my last visit to the Iowa City Farmer’s Market that Wednesday night, planning mainly to pick up a few gifts for the folks who would be hosting me on my journey west, but deciding, while I was there, to grab a bunch of locally-grown asparagus. Even though I knew I had to stop using my cooking gear and get it into boxes, the asparagus looked to good not to buy it.

So, on Thursday night, I told Betsy to make time for one last dinner cooked in my big Iowa kitchen. It was time for enchiladas, which, over the course of my last year in Iowa, became one of my favorite go-to comfort foods. Fast, easy and, as I made them, arguably not that unhealthy, I started making large batches every couple of weeks, taking the leftovers for lunch or, on days when the comfort was necessary earlier in the day, eating them for breakfast.

Spinach and slow-roasted tomatoes

Spinach and slow-roasted tomatoes

I use an informal recipe, so informal that I’m not going to write it out in traditional fashion. But trust me…anyone can do this. I pre-heated the oven to 375 degrees, then pulled out my stoneware 9” x 12” pan (stoneware’s not required). I sauteed the slow-roasted tomatoes and a bag of baby spinach over medium-high heat until the spinach wilted, then mixed the tomatoes and spinach in a bowl with a diced package of baked tofu (hickory flavored) and three or four spoonfuls of salsa. These ingredients, it should be noted, are not written in stone—if you like mushrooms, or chicken, or black beans, or corn, try any or all of that.

I rolled that filling into spelt tortillas, but you can use flour tortillas or even corn, although warming the corn tortillas first will help keep them from cracking as you roll them up. I placed each tortilla seam-down in the pan, nestling them against each other so they held each other together. I poured a 12-ounce bottle of Trader Joe’s enchilada sauce (that’s my favorite brand, but any enchilada sauce will do) over the top and then sprinkled the whole pan-full with shredded Colby Jack. Eyeball the cheese until it seems right to you – there are days when just a light touch works great, but other days when extra cheese makes all the difference. Gauge your own mood accordingly.

Then I baked them up, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until the cheese had melted and the sauce around the edges bubbled and hissed.

Enchiladas, between asparagus and avocado

Enchiladas, between asparagus and avocado

I also roasted that asparagus, and plated up the enchiladas with the Iowa asparagus on one side and sliced avocado, which just happened to have been flown in from California, on the other. Betsy and I ate dinner at the kitchen table gleaned from another friend who passed it along just when I needed it most, as the light faded over my garden in the back. There would be no more cooking in Iowa, but it seemed just the right dinner to end on: one that featured ingredients from both states, that I served to a friend in the kitchen I’d loved since I first walked into it, and that offered nutrition and comfort for the journey.

This is my post for Weekend Herb Blogging, which is hosted this week by Archana of Archana’s Kitchen. Please stop by later in the weekend for the full round-up of posts!

The dog can’t eat this homework

Tomorrow morning, BlogHer ’08 kicks off. I’ll be there, in full force. In fact, I kicked off conference-related celebrating tonight at a party thrown by The Experience Project at Rye in the Tenderloin.

Note to cocktail enthusiasts and BlogHers looking for a tasty drink: Go to Rye, get yourself a Blue Moon, and you won’t be sorry.

It should be known that while I almost never (I’m not perfect, so I’m not even going to claim that on this here bloggerino…) miss a deadline, I have been known to carry one up to the, ahem, very last minute.

So it should be no surprise to me that I have not yet completed the assignment given by Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen. It should be easy: write a 10-word introduction that describes your blog.

I admit: I have a blog tagline that fits that very description, but I’ve been waffling about whether it’s right for this assignment. I’ve got about 12 hours before I need to come up with an officially-presented answer.

Time’s ticking. Suggestions from the peanut gallery are always welcome, and I’ll report back on that (and on the garden bloggers’ meetup) on Saturday.

Debunking my personal plumeria myth

Years ago, I lived with a roommate who was addicted to Bath and Body Works shower gels and moisturizers. Her scent of choice? Plumeria, which I eschewed in favor of Sun-Ripened Raspberry or Warm Vanilla Sugar (so many mornings of seeing that B&BW label in the shower finally wore off on me). Even then, my priority was all things edible. Or, at least, edibly scented.

In the echo chamber of my head, I pronounced the name of the flower like a fast food place that specialized in stone fruit. Not a taqueria, but a PLUM-ehr-EE-ah. I persisted in this belief that the scent had something to do with plums, even though the flowers on the label gave no indication of that whatsoever.

Plumeria blossoms, Hanalei

Plumeria blossoms, Hanalei

Then, a few weeks ago, I ended up on vacation on Kaua’i with The Mint Killer and her family. On the way out of Lihue, The Mint Killer pointed at a line of trees with white blossoms and said, “Plum-AIR-ee-ah. That’s my favorite.”

It had been more than 10 years since I pondered the mysteries of my roommate’s fast food stone fruit body wash, but suddenly it was as if the clouds over Hanalei Bay had broken and a rainbow had appeared.

“OH!” I said. “Plum-AIR-ee-ah. I always thought Bath and Body Works made up that fragrance.”

The Mint Killer gave me the oddest of looks, the kind of look that says, up until now, you have demonstrated most of a grasp on smart, even when it comes to plants, but now I’m not so sure.

But I say this: if a stone fruit fast food place opens in your neighborhood, you will be the first to know how to pronounce its name. So there.

Green Thumb Sunday: Rose, Union Station, Los Angeles

Rose at Union Station, Los Angeles

Rose at Union Station, Los Angeles

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Pizzeria Mozza: Familiar, but divine

About six years ago, while on a business trip to Monterey, I sat at the hotel bar late one night chatting with one of our consultants over a glass of wine. On that particular day, I’d given a communications workshop in the morning, attended another meeting in the afternoon, and then dashed out the door to go for a drive down Highway 1 to catch as many late-afternoon and early-evening vistas as I could before dark. Then I hit an amazing Asian fusion restaurant with a co-worker on the way back up the coast before returning to the hotel.

I gave the consultant a run-down of everything I’d done after wrapping up my work duties, and he sat back in the chair and shook his head. “You know what I do on business trips?” he said. “I fly in, I go to the hotel, I eat at the hotel, I do my work at the hotel, and then I fly home. I don’t have time to go look around.”

“You don’t have time?” I asked. “Or you don’t make time?”

He conceded my point, which is this: There are two kinds of business travelers. Those who are content to settle for underwhelming, overpriced hotel food and bland experiences, or those who make the time to do something to enjoy wherever their travels take them. I don’t care if you’ve been sent to Peoria—there has to be some coffeeshop or restaurant or local market or city museum that has something interesting to offer, and I operate by the philosophy that it’s important to, without killing yourself, make the time to not just work while traveling, but play, as well. After all, you’ve been sent to a different destination, so you might as well get to know it better.

This is how I ended up at Pizzeria Mozza for dinner last night. I’m on a quick business trip to Los Angeles, and was in search of good dining options for a solo traveler. A search of Chowhound led to a goldmine thread of ideas and information, which eventually took me to my destination.

Anything but pedestrian
Here’s what I had for dinner: Cauliflower all cheesed up, a breadstick, pizza and butterscotch pudding.

Sounds pedestrian, right?

Here’s the thing. Pizzeria Mozza is the brainchild of Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery fame, Mario Batali of orange Crocs and crazy-good Italian food fame, and Joe Bastianich of I’m-the-son-of-Lidia fame. (That’s actually hardly fair to Joe, who, with Batali, has basically built a restaurant and wine empire. He might be the most accomplished Mama’s boy ever…) With a pedigree like that, I should have expected an amazing meal, and that’s exactly what I got.

I started with the breadstick, which came with a couple of its brethren, loosely wrapped in wax paper. It was flavorful but simple, and crunchy without being a tooth-breaker. I would have eaten said brethren, but I knew I was in for a full-on meal, and didn’t want to waste any room in my stomach.

Recognizing that it was going to be incredibly heavy, I nonetheless ordered the cauliflower gratinee, which showed up in a little pottery dish, browned to golden on top and smelling so creamy-good that my immediate neighbors along the wine bar stopped their conversation and started talking to me. As I expected, it was a totally unnecessary indulgence, but whatever. It was good enough to write about, and therefore, I’m not sorry I downed it. In fact, I practically burned my tongue because it was so good I could barely wait for the steam to stop curling before I started eating.

The bartender, Nick, must have noticed my sheer lack of patience, because when he delivered the pizza I’d ordered—Coach Farm goat cheese, leeks, scallions and bacon (and, although it wasn’t listed, a healthy dose of roasted garlic)—he warned me to hold tight. “As it cools, the leeks get sweeter and the flavor of the goat cheese really comes out,’ he said.

Those of you who have told me all my life how I eat much too fast? Your approach was dead wrong. If a hot, foodie bartender explains how eating slower will be in my best interest as an enjoyer of goat cheese? Well, then I eat like a snail.

A dessert-related loss of dignity
Nick also endeared himself to me by delivering me a complimentary taste of a Moscato d’Asti offered by the restaurant alongside my dessert, the butterscotch budini. This was something like a butterscotch pot de crème, but with a layer of salted caramel sauce and a dollop of whipped cream on top, served alongside rosemary pine nut biscotti.

Nick’s recommended approach was to take a bite of the budini, then a sip of the Moscato, then a bite of biscotti. “There are plenty of other combinations, I’m sure, but that one’s worked the best for me,” he said.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. He was absolutely right—the combination was fabulous.

“Make sure you eat all the way to the bottom,” he said. “There’s good caramel down there.”

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “This is so good you’re going to be lucky if I don’t steal the glass so I can lick it in the car on the way home.”

I try to maintain my dignity, people, but when faced with such a luscious dessert, I lose all control. Apparently.

Not the only one enjoying myself
The diners around me were also loudly enjoying such treats as the roasted red peppers with tuna (including a diner who swore she doesn’t even like tuna, but loved that dish), the Rucola, funghi & Piave salad with a lemon dressing, the pizza Bianco, and the mint chocolate chip gelato. The buzzing conversations about film sets and upcoming location shoots stopped every time a new dish was delivered to any of the patrons within earshot so they could ooh and aah over the next eating adventure.

The meal definitely required me to kick in over my per diem allowance for dinner, but I would have paid for the whole thing, gladly. And I would have taken photos, but honestly, I was so entranced by the food, I completely forgot.

So…if you’re in LA, get thee to Pizzeria Mozza. It’s the familiar, elevated to the divine.


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All words and images (unless otherwise credited) on The Inadvertent Gardener are © 2006-2008 Eugenia E. Gratto. All rights reserved.

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