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“secret recipe” guacamole

And then, all of a sudden, I had a full-time job.

“You learn the value of wine when you work,” my mom whispered conspiratorially as she handed me a glass. I was at the stovetop preparing the third “work-week dinner” of my life, a stew of canned tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and farro. By the time I’d reached the end of my week I’d learned the value of quite a few things: sleep (hello, 6:30 a.m. conference calls!), well-packed lunches, thermoses that keep tea hot for more than 30 minutes, and cheese (which I now devour straight from the wax paper within 5 minutes of arriving home).

All in all I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working. My first week had me so engrossed I ate only one lunch a day instead of my customary three,  and when I did eat it was with a ravenous craving for comfort food. Of course comfort food carries slightly different connotations here in Southern California, and when the weekend arrived I was ready to make not macaroni or mashed potatoes, but guacamole.

Oddly enough, my South African family has a rich and varied history with guacamole. Sometime after my uncle traveled to Mexico we instituted guacamole competitions at our family reunions, and the culminating event took place last October at my mother’s 50th birthday celebration. While taco meat sizzled and margaritas circulated widely, relatives and friends thronged round the competition table, where each contestant set to work with their allotted 4 avocados. There were the regular ingredients—garlic, onion, lime, tomato—and then there were the heralds of innovation—sriracha, corn, curry powder and Parmesan. The winner enjoyed first pickings from the piñata, not to mention a brief moment of honor in which all the guests reverently (and irreverently) bestowed slaps on the back and applause.

My original recipe—avos from the garden and limes from a neighbor’s donation bucket, with a squeeze of crushed garlic and a bit of chopped tomato—is still a favorite, but I’ve recently adapted it to include a few secrets from past competition winners. Up to now I’ve only held second place, but when the next family gathering rolls around I plan to be ready…

Guacamole with Garlic, Cilantro, Cumin and Parmesan

I love adding cumin to my guacamole (a secret tip from my uncle) and if you’re feeling adventurous give the Parmesan a go as well, courtesy of our family friend Mark.

4 ripe avocados

juice of half a lime

2 cloves garlic, crushed

half a large ripe tomato, chopped

half a medium onion, chopped

handful cilantro, chopped

1 tsp. cumin

salt & pepper

freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Peel and gently mash the four avocados. Add the lime juice, garlic, tomato, onion and cilantro and stir to combine. Add the cumin with the salt and pepper, then taste and season accordingly. Add the Parmesan if desired and enjoy with chips!

avocado bruschetta with smoked salmon (san francisco part 2)

Saturday

5:20 p.m.

We arrive at Bar Bambino early—very early—because I haven’t made reservations. The host gives our six-person group the once-over and decides we are one of those overly-confident foodie families, but after a quick consultation with my father he seats us three and three along the corner of the bar. An elderly man and woman sharing olives and wine are our only dining companions, but by six o’clock the place is packed.

I have chestnut soup with celeriac (feeling very self-satisfied that I know this gnarled root after my time at Love Apple) and we all vie for crispy florets of cauliflower that have been battered and lightly fried. We finish dessert just before seven and my thoughts turn shamefully (and longingly) to my inflatable mattress at our friend’s home in San Rafael, but Stas the music maven has another suggestion: the SF Bluegrass and Old Time Festival. After settling snugly in a basement bar to wait for Hang Jones and the Jugtown Pirates, she and I venture upstairs where a friendly festival-worker lets us in to go square dancing. Immediately I love it—over 30 couples assembled in plaids and dresses, with a live string band and dance moves like “three little ladies” and “let the dove pass through.” At one point a very tall man whisks me two feet off the ground, and moments later Stas and I burst out giggling in the giant circle of dancers, clasping hands for minutes before realizing none of the actual romantic couples are doing so. I laugh a lot. “You look so happy!” My sister cries reproachfully when we pass her in the do-si-dos, with a look halfway between envy and I’m trying not to be embarrassed for you.

Sunday

9:30 a.m.

Sunday morning is farmer’s market round two in Marin, and this time I’m ravenous. A five minutes on the premises I’m sinking my teeth into an Indian spinach flatbread at a stand where we somehow spend $25 (“But he gave us a free samosa!”). From there I buy and devour an extremely large Asian pear, then go for a handful of caramel dates, then finally settle on a pretzel-croissant (let it be known: Germany and France have produced a perfect love-child). It’s a good thing we get lost on the hike that follows because two-hours of walking is exactly what I need.

Sunday night I have made a reservation: a restaurant called Picco that I imagine is “amiable Italian.” One glance at the menu proves me utterly (and delightfully) wrong. There are grilled baby artichokes with smoked ham and tarragon aioli, lamb chops with rapini pesto and cumin yogurt, and a risotto made from scratch “on the half hour.” Each plate arrives to be shared by the whole table, and as we wait to be delighted yet again (nothing disappoints) I’m hard-pressed to think of a meal with my family that I’ve enjoyed more. An avocado bruschetta scores big, and we finish with miniature alcoholic shakes and warm chocolate madeleines.

Sitting at Café Fanny in Berkeley early the next morning, I’m rejuvenated and thankful and full as I nevertheless contemplate a second hot chocolate. Oh to live a life of travel and eating with family and friends—but then I suppose that’s why we work, isn’t it?

Avocado Bruschetta with Smoked Salmon

This recipe–inspired by a similar dish with chorizo at Picco–resulted in one the simplest and most delicious lunches I’ve had in ages.

4 thin slices of good-quality bread (whole wheat levain works well)

1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

2 ripe avocados

1 small packet of smoked salmon

red pepper flakes

olive oil

sea salt

Cut the slices of bread in half diagonally and toast until lightly browned. Rub each half-slice with the raw garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Place a thin piece of smoked salmon on each toast.

Cut your avocados into quarters and peel. Slice each quarter thinly lengthwise before fanning it out gently on top of the salmon. Sprinkle completed toast with sea salt and red pepper flakes.

crunchy garden spring rolls with pickled carrots

I’m not generally the type to make friends in transit. I don’t quite go the full sunglasses-and-headphones route, but I usually board the subway or plane with a book and a non-committal smile at the ready for anyone who edges towards small talk.

So it was with little expectation that I surveyed my seatmate on the train this weekend, a small, gray-haired Vietnamese woman with a white bucket hat and her feet tucked under her. We read—me, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and she a book in Vietnamese—I worked on a few crossword puzzles, and she quietly readjusted her hat and feet. Then, just as we pulled into Los Angeles and an overhead voice made the tragic announcement that corn dogs were no longer available for purchase in the dining car, she turned to me and asked about my cell phone plan.

How the conversation turned from that to grilling vegetables I don’t know, but fifteen minutes later I was gesturing enthusiastically as I tossed imaginary florets of cauliflower in olive oil and slid them into the oven. Olive oil? At 400 degrees? She nodded earnestly and assured me she would try it, confessing she’d been looking for a new way to do vegetables and had never tried roasting them in the oven. In return she shared with me the merits of oxtail, multiple uses for fish sauce, and where to buy spices for a perfect pot of Pho while I frantically scribbled notes on a scrap of paper. As we neared her stop she reached into her bag and pulled out a crusty roll with cucumber, thinly sliced meats, daikon radish and pickled carrots: a homemade Banh Mi. Breaking it in half she offered me the larger portion, and we munched happily while she extracted a thin strand of carrot and told me the method she used to pickle it. As I helped her off the train after a quick hug I was reminded that even friendships that last less than 30 minutes can yield memorable moments–and memorable recipes.

Crunchy Garden Spring Rolls with Pickled Carrots and Peanut Dipping Sauce

These are the easiest–and tastiest–snacks to make, especially if you have lots of veggies on hand. The only tricky part can be finding the rice paper wrappers, but they are widely available at local Asian groceries and some large markets like Whole Foods (the same goes for the slightly more ubiquitous fish sauce and sriracha). Please feel free to play around and add more types of vegetables than I suggest.

For pickled carrots:

2 large carrots

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup honey

Slice carrots into thin strips and set aside in a shallow bowl. Add water, vinegar, and honey to a small saucepan and bring to a boil, then pour over carrots until they are completely submerged. Soak overnight before sealing and storing in your refrigerator.

For spring rolls:

1 packet Vietnamese rice paper wrappers (round or square)

1 cucumber

1 avocado

2 carrots, pickled (see above)

lettuce leaves

cilantro

Slice cucumber, avocado, and any other veggies you plan to use into thin strips. Tear lettuce leaves in half and cilantro into small sprigs, and arrange all veggies (including pickled carrots) so they are close at hand.

Pour hot (not quite boiling) water into a shallow dish, and dip a sheet of rice paper in the water until soft and pliable. Lay rice paper on a dry surface and arrange lettuce, carrots, avocado, cilantro and other veggies in the center. Roll tightly while tucking in the edges, then cut diagonally in half and serve.

For spicy peanut sauce:

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup peanut butter

sriracha hot sauce

Combine the first four ingredients until smooth. At this point, it’s all about taste: more salty? Add fish sauce. More sweet? More honey. More tangy? Bring out the rice vinegar. Adjust with peanut butter for desired thickness, and finally add sriracha for spice.

the best way to eat a ripe tomato

The season of the tomato has arrived.

This season holds no small meaning for Love Apple, a farm named for the fruit I used to believe was red and round. This week, after a spell of perfect hot summer days, I lost that illusion for good—here tomatoes are orange, pink, black, gold, green and white, their shape long like a sausage or accommodating fantastic bulges. I always knew that tomatoes were Cynthia’s specialty, the cultivated passion that led the farm into the relationship it has with Manresa today. Now I finally understand: there are so many experiences a tomato can offer, and its season is the time to relish that variety.

With one season arriving, one has also drawn to a close. My friend and roommate Lisette left the farm this week, and as we all spent Saturday night drinking pitchers of IPA in downtown Santa Cruz we had our own little version of “farm dinner questions” to celebrate her time here. She asked us to remember a time we’d laughed with (or at) her, and the stories that came up were all of the “only on the farm…” variety, from dancing in the greenhouse on a winter’s morning to an episode I can only describe as involving zucchinis and a toilet. For my part, when I think of Lisette I remember the way she always greeted me with an enthusiastic “Miss B!” when we crossed paths in the garden. I’d never had a nickname from a friend before (“Sara” being somewhat lacking in wordplay potential), and it made me grin almost as much as I would when we’d sit in the kitchen after dinner giggling hysterically over Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder.

Lisette was the most knowledgeable among us apprentices when it came to the tomatoes on the farm, so it is in her honor that I want to share my favorite way of eating a ripe tomato. Nothing fussy, it’s something I’ve had every day this week for lunch. In fact I had to make it three times before I could photograph it today–not because it had to be perfect, but because I was hungry and found myself unable to resist a bite before I had the chance to get my camera.

The Best Way to Eat a Ripe Tomato

The key here is ingredients: ripe tomato, creamy avocado, good bread and a nice salty piece of cheese.

1 large ripe tomato

1/2 ripe avocado

slice of German wheat bread

1 or 2 slices of aged gouda or parmesan

salt & pepper

Toast your bread until crispy and golden, then layer with sliced avocado, thick slices of tomato, and cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and enjoy!

shepherd’s pie

The other evening as I grabbed my camera for what’s become a ritual of last-minute dinner photography (“Wait! Nobody touch the food!”) Sam delivered some sage advice: “You need more people in your pictures.” Yes, the chickens are lovely, but it really is the people at Love Apple that make it so much fun to be (and eat) here, and truth be told, all my fellow apprentices are great cooks. Ellen makes a mean quiche. Christine does a gooey tortilla casserole. Sam bakes fragrant orange scones. Lisette whips up creamy peanut butter avocado dressing. Zach does a spot-on version of Pim’s onion tart. Ross makes incredible sautéed mushrooms. And Phillip makes good everything (out of anything in the pantry—I never cease to be amazed). We eat well here every night, and over the past few weeks I’ve learned as much about making good food as I have in the past year.

I’ve also learned a lot about enjoying food. I admit: I’ve been through several stages in my life where friends took one look at the things I cooked and labeled me a health nut. The first of these episodes occurred early in life—I have a distinct memory of my 13-year-old self substituting olive oil for butter and ending up with a lemon loaf that resembled an oozing brick. Growing up a girl in image-conscious Southern California (or anywhere, for that matter) it can be hard not to develop a controlling attitude towards food, be it what you’re eating or how much of it. Fortunately for me, I discovered life just isn’t worth getting up in the morning if you don’t find pleasure in what you eat.

I have many eating pleasures, whether they be fried eggs in oatmeal, ramen from New York’s Ippudo, or cardamom pistachio ice cream from my new favorite place in Santa Cruz, The Penny Ice Creamery. The pleasures I’ve found here on the farm consist of deliciously hearty meals that usually at least three of us have a hand in, flavored with a healthy dollop of butter or bacon (my cast iron pan loves it) and seasoned with the appetites we build up working outside eight hours a day. As with the shepherd’s pie we had the other night, each meal is a bit of an adventure—some oyster sauce here, a little sliced avocado there—but that only makes it all the more enjoyable. And speaking of enjoying food, no feast at the table outside the cottage would be complete without a glass (or mason jar, or plastic child’s cup) of wine from our dear friend Charles Shaw.

Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd’s Pie is the ultimate vehicle for improvisation—make your mashed potatoes just how you like them, and taste and season the filling as you’re going along. This is the recipe for a more traditional meat version (we used ground turkey), but we also made a veggie version for the vegetarians among us with onions, corn, broccoli, and canned tomatoes.

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb ground turkey

1 cup corn kernels

Salt and pepper

1 tsp red chili flakes

2 Tbsps oyster sauce

1 cup chicken broth

A few Tbsps flour

A generous helping of mashed potatoes

Shredded cheddar cheese

1 avocado, sliced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan or skillet, sauté the onions over medium heat until translucent, then add in minced garlic. Add the ground turkey next and break up with a wooden spoon, browning the meat nicely. Stir in the corn, and season to your liking with salt, pepper, chili flakes and oyster sauce. Pour in the broth and turn the heat to medium-low, simmering and adding enough flour to thicken the juices. Meanwhile, assemble your mashed potatoes (Ross made ours with butter, goats’ milk, and garlic—use your favorite). When the liquid from the stock turns nice and gooey, turn of the heat and spread the potatoes in a thick layer on top of the meat (if your skillet isn’t oven-proof transfer meat to a baking dish first). Sprinkle the potatoes with shredded cheddar and bake until the cheese is melted and the liquid from the meat is bubbling up around the edges. Garnish with avocado slices and serve.

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