Friday, December 30, 2011

Quite the Year

I will remember 2011 as the year that I got to do an incredible amount of traveling... enough to possibly even get it out of my system for awhile, if you can believe that. I feel so incredibly lucky and blessed to have seen so many new places and spent time with people I loved. Here's a quick recap, mostly in photos.

I started the year in Gunsan, South Korea where I was finishing a year-long teaching contract. It had snowed on Christmas and didn't get above freezing for the whole month of January. I'd pass this snow-covered Buddhist temple on my bike ride. (Yes, I learned how to cycle in the snow.)
Our school had a winter English camp, and I taught the drama class, in which I wrote and directed a modern musical version of the Wizard of Oz for 64 middle school students. They sang "Help" by the Beatles, among other songs, and luckily some of my awesome Korean coteachers choreographed the dances.
In February I went to Australia to visit my dear friend Scott. We hiked around the Grampians National Park (as well as we could with all the trail closures after the floods) and saw emus and kangaroos and some of the oldest petroglyphs on the planet.
We also drove to Sydney and back via the coast, stopping for caves and fresh oysters and local cheese and beaches.
Then I headed to Southeast Asia for a month, where I had one of the absolute craziest experiences of my life- riding a motorbike in Saigon, Vietnam. I managed to stay alive and avoid accidents, and even drove onto a ferry with a kazillion other bikes.
In Cambodia I watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
In Thailand I visited a couple friends, took a cooking class, and made it out to some islands.
In April I was back home to enjoy the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in spring.
I didn't want to leave town again before going to our annual family work party on Memorial Day weekend in the San Juans.
Then it was off again, for a long-awaited trip to Europe, where I hadn't traveled in over 10 years. I met up with Cherie, who I had met in Korea, and we traveled in Spain and walked a bit of the pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.
We went to Barcelona together, then parted when I flew to Italy. I started in the north and volunteered on a farm in Piedmont.
From there I made my way down the coast to Genova and Cinque Terre...
... and then to another farm in Tuscany.
In August I came back home to the warm summer, and made sure to do plenty of hiking, including a trip to the Olympics.
In September my Australian friend came to Seattle for the World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championships, and I ended up watching a lot of bike polo at Magnuson Park.
I also went to Mount Rainier for a group campout weekend, which happened to also consist of a historical 1899 roleplay murder mystery game.
Later in the fall, the whole family took a trip to Seabrook on the Washington coast.
Well, there were of course a million other things that happened, but those were some of the highlights. Can't wait to see what 2012 brings. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Merry

Merry Christmas! It's hard to believe another Christmas has already come and gone. It's been a sweet, peaceful, and very traditional holiday here in Seattle with my family- big Christmas Eve party with Norwegian brined meat, potato lefse, a Santa suit, and singing around the tree with lots of enthusiasm but gaps in the verses. Christmas morning at my mom's with satsumas in stockings, then brunch at my aunt's with waffles, bacon, frittata, coffee and Baileys, and mimosas . It's funny to think I've done these things for almost all 29 years of my life (minus the year I was with my friend's Jewish family in Mexico, and last year in South Korea). There is comfort in doing the same thing, and yet what is surprising is that each year is not the same at all. Kids get older, a divorced spouse is absent, a new girlfriend is brought, a family member is sick, or recently recovered. This is what I like about tradition- that it is not always the same, just the same context for a family to grow and change.
A coworker at the flower shop asked me last week what my favorite thing about Christmas was. After considering a moment, I said, "That it's such a big holiday that people make the effort to get together." It's a time when it's okay to put everything on hold and make time to see family or dear friends. If we didn't do that at this time of year, would it happen at all? On the flip side, the holiday can create a lot of pressure and stress- on people to travel in winter, to decide who to visit, to figure out what to do at all if they don't have family or a close community around.

And of course, there are many other holidays to celebrate in this season. We say "Happy Holidays" as almost a euphemism or sneaky substitute for "Merry Christmas", but I like the idea of honoring other things that are actually happening at this time of year, namely the return of light, instead of a birth that we all know didn't even happen in winter.

And so, besides celebrating Christmas merrily, I've really enjoyed gathering with friends the past week in Solstice parties and potlucks, and Hanukkah candle lighting and singing. We are in the dark heart of winter, and these holidays remind us of the light within ourselves, the warmth in the people we love, and nature's ever-changing cycles. It has to get dark to get light. And even as the bustle and cheer die down, we have to remember that every day is a minute or two longer, and even in the deep grey of Seattle, we have a quiet, resolute strength to get through the winter. Here is a quote I recently came across, by writer Melanie Rae Thon- "The chickadee comes to the feeder. Even now, so close to twilight! Less than half an ounce of feather and hollow bone, ten drops of blood, heart smaller than a fingernail — yet she survives all night, every night, all winter."

Merry merry to you, whatever you may be celebrating.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cow to Beef

It wasn't the best weekend to leave town. I worked all day Friday so I was leaving Seattle late. I turned down an event I really wanted to volunteer with, a fundraising dinner for Just Garden. There was not one, but two different friends' birthdays on Saturday. But it's rare to get a chance to go out to our family's property in the San Juan islands in December. In fact, in my almost 3 decades of life, I don't think I ever have. And I have definitely never been a part of slaughtering any cows that the family raised.

Yes, that's why I went out for the weekend. Vegetarian friends, you may not wish to read on. My family has raised organic, pastured, grass-fed cows on this land since I can remember. Usually they are sold live at a cattle auction, but for a variety of reasons including lack of profit margin and lack of full-time residents on the property to care for the animals, we are starting to phase out raising cows at all. So we are slaughtering the ones we have and keeping the meat in the family in our last years of beef production.

It may seem strange, even inhumane, for me to set aside a weekend to kill a huge animal. Anyone who knows me knows I'm the kind of person who won't kill a spider- even at a friend's house I will offer to take the spider outside for them, trapped between a piece of paper and a cup while in transit. But I eat meat, and prefer to eat animals that lived happy, healthy lives and died quickly with as little suffering as possible. The best way to ensure this is to eat animals that I've had a part in that process.

I got out to the island early Saturday morning, thanks to my step-dad picking me up on Orcas. He had french-pressed coffee ready for me in the thermos, and we enjoyed a calm, bright grey boat ride with seal heads poking out of the water and buffleheads swooping by.

There were 8 adults that convened for the Cow to Beef project. The bull stayed in the pasture and a younger cousin shot it from the other side of the fence.
Another cousin slit the throat to drain the blood, and then we skinned the hind legs to expose the rear tendons. There is place between the tendon and bone where large animals can be hung up and it will support the weight. We put a crow bar through and then raised up the whole animal on a rope with a Caterpillar tractor. It was quite a surreal sight because the bull was massive, probably around a thousand pounds. Then my cousin drove the animal a quarter mile where we would do the gutting and skinning near the barn.I have experience skinning deer, so I had no trouble jumping in and helping skin while others worked on field dressing in front. However, the skin was much thicker, and the domestic animal much fattier, than the wild deer that I'm used to.
Field dressing is more technical because you don't want to puncture any of the organs, especially, obviously, anything containing urine or feces. This is the most time-consuming part as it needs to be done carefully, or you risk ruining the meat. But it needs to be done relatively quickly so that the body can cool and the meat exposed to air to start curing. They finally got all the guts out, and it was quite a large pile. Just the heart alone was enormous.
Once the guts were all out, we finished skinning, and then took off the head. At this point it was starting to look more like meat in a butcher shop. From there we cut it in half with a sawzall, then into quarters.
Even in quarters, the meat was extremely heavy. It took four adults to carry each quarter 30 feet into the barn where it could hang overnight. We estimated that the quarters weighed 200-250 pounds each. Finally, after hours of standing and working in the cold December air, we were finished with the cow project for the day.

But there was still more meat-related foraging to do. Larry and I went to pull up the crab pots in the bay, since winter crabbing is currently open. As I pulled up the pots, I was shocked at how full they were.
I've done a lot of crabbing in my day, and never seen a catch like this. Only about one per pot was female, and a couple were undersized, but for the most part they were all regulation-sized males.
That night, we had a feast of fresh crab and wild king salmon straight from Alaska. My cousin and I also taught every one the drinking game King's Cup, which turns out is pretty fun even with non-alcoholic beverages.

On Sunday, we had to cook all the crab that had been kept in the live well. It was quite a process cleaning, cooking, cooling, and packing them all up. Here is our two-burner set-up.
As soon as that was finished, we moved the beef quarters from the barn down to the boat. We loaded up the back of the truck, also a totally surreal image.
Once we got the truck to the dock, we used the crane and winch to lower the quarters onto the boat. It worked really well, but took quite a few people.
With that, the weekend's work was done. We headed back to Anacortes in a very heavy boat in the afternoon light with a great view of Mount Baker. Since it's a lot of meat and no one in the family is a butcher, the plan is to just take it to a local butcher who can do up the cuts we want. I'm looking forward to trying the meat that was raised from start to finish within the family. Sorry for the graphic, slaughter-centric post, but it was such an interesting experience I couldn't help but share.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seattle Half Marathon

Today, in the wee hours of morning when it was barely light, I joined 17,000 people in downtown Seattle to voluntarily slog miles and miles through the rain. Yes, it was the annual Seattle Marathon and Half Marathon. I drove down with my training buddy Gabi, and we checked our post-race clothes and prayed we'd have time to go to the bathroom before the starting gun went off. Here's Gabi, pumped for the race.
And the finish line at Memorial Stadium at the Seattle Center, about 15 minutes before the race started.
We made it to the start line just in time, and took off with the sea of bodies down 5th Avenue, under the monorail, and then through the international district. I saw my friend Johnny, and Gabi saw another friend, amazing me that we could find familiar faces in such a large crowd. We got on Interstate 90 as it started raining. The grey scenery improved as we turned onto Lake Washington Boulevard and had a nice view of the lake.
One of my favorite parts about running an official race is the community and camaraderie of it. All these strangers from different backgrounds have somehow decided on completing this same, somewhat arbitrary mileage goal. It's fun to people watch, see miles of the city by foot, chat with people around you, and see the signs of some of the supporters. My favorites were "Chuck Norris never ran a marathon!" and "You've got great stamina!... call me (phone number)". When your clothes are wet, you've been running for 10 miles, and the uphill stretch of Galer St, Madison Ave, and the Arboretum seem like they will never end, a little humor goes a long way.

Johnny, Gabi, and I kept each other entertained, and we tried to share the laughter around. But the response was disappointingly quiet as the majority of runners had headphones on. I understand that music is a major motivator and the norm for modern workouts, but I think it's really too bad that it creates an atmosphere of isolation when this type of momentous event could be shared with more people. At one point, Gabi and I came up behind a guy in shorts with bulging calves and beautiful sleeve tattoos on both legs. "Awesome tattoos!" Gabi said. No response. Silence. We passed him and saw he had headphones in. I just don't like the feeling that you can't have a simple conversation if you want to.

But my headphone rant aside, the race was great. It's well organized and supported, and really wasn't even that miserably cold. We finished, got snacks, and it was just around 10am, so it felt like we had already accomplished a lot for the day. I like doing races so that I have something to train for, not because I'm fast or competitive. I ended up getting the exact time I have in 2 other half marathons, so my pace was on track. I got a better time in the half marathon in Seoul last year, but the course along the Han River was completely flat, so I don't think it can quite compare to the hilliness of Seattle. I ended up getting 308th place out of 629 in my division, so it's nice to know I'm a little faster than the average woman my age. Mostly, I was happy to have a reason to get outside and be active this fall, and to see a project through.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thankful for Home

Happy Thanksgiving! I was home for the first time in four years, which was really nice. It was a mellow holiday at my mom's with good food and good company.

My culinary excitement of the day was making my first Tarte Tatin. I had never heard of it until a few years ago when my friend Miri had me over for dinner and whipped one up nonchalantly for dessert while we were chatting. I was struck by the beauty, and deep caramelly flavor of the apples, the rustic elegance. I found a great recipe on Orangette, and while my process was a lot slower than I remember Miri's being, I was really happy with the end result.
Later I went to a friend's house who was hosting an "orphans" Thanksgiving. The post-meal lethargy eventually wore off and turned into a dance party. It was the perfect way to end a day of lots of eating and sitting!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seabrook, or, A Crash Course in Razor Clamming

For the 3-day weekend of 11-11-11, my family rented a house in the little community of Seabrook on the coast of southern Washington. I mean immediate family, as well as grandma, first cousins, aunts, uncles, and a few friends- 21 of us total in 2 different houses. Coincidentally, it was just announced that razor clamming would be open for 2 days only on a small handful of beaches in this exact place!
By the time we got through the holiday traffic on I-5 and made it out there, it was later than we had planned. It was practically dark and almost dinner time, but my step-dad Larry and I couldn't be confined indoors for the night until we had at least attempted clamming. The only problem was, neither of us had ever clammed, and my uncle who was going to show us the ropes had already headed out. We didn't get cell signals in this stretch of coast, so there was no way to get in contact. Shrugging, Larry and I geared up for foul weather and decided to head out anyway, admitting that we were the blind leading the blind.

We found a beach, pitch black except the evenly-spaced dots of yellow lantern light from the other clam diggers. At least we are in the right spot. So with heads bent to the wind, and awkwardly gripping our flailing buckets and clam guns, we started walking across the beach toward the water. If you've been to the Washington coast at low tide, you know that this can be a long, flat stretch. It was dark ahead of us and dark behind us. It was the most extreme weather I've been in for a long time- the kind where the wind is so strong you can barely breathe, and driving rain has a way of finding any tiny cranny of clothing. Luckily it didn't last long, and by the time we got out to the shore, the rain had stopped and the full moon came out from behind the clouds.
We knew we needed to find the airholes in the sand, and in my head I was picturing compact, round black holes. We saw a few of those and dug, but to our dismay, nothing came up. We stooped over in the wind, eyes strained on the sand, til Larry said, with an intuition that amazes me, "That looks like something." It was just a faint dimpled crater, not an obvious dark hole. But Larry dug, and lo and behold, up came a big razor clam with its oblong yellow shell and long neck and digger foot at each end. It was sort of shocking at first, that the tiniest of clue could indeed yield a real creature living down there. It reminded me of digging potatoes, how you can't see them but you trust that they're there, and up from the darkness comes food. We dug for the next hour, until Larry reached his limit of 15, and I had a solid 10.

We got back to the house cold and tired, but happy with our catch. The whole family had arrived and convened for dinner, various carloads from Seattle and Oregon managing to find each other. Dinner turned into dessert, for which I had made nutmeg pot de creme. (Years ago, my grandma gave me a set of baking ramekins when I graduated college, which I thought was a completely useless gift. But I already loved eggy, custardy desserts, and found that with ramekins in my possession, I became a creme brulee making machine that summer.) This recipe is like creme brulee without the torched sugar top, and with nutmeg and vanilla and heavy cream tasted just like the holidays.
Then dessert turned into drinks and games and poker... but those of us who had caught clams had to clean them before any more fun could be had. My uncle showed us how to blanch them so that the shells would open and easily slide off. Here's a particularly big one with his neck stretched out. Then you have to gut them, and fillet them open to get all the sand out.
On Saturday morning we awoke to... you guessed it, more rain! I went for a soggy run on a back-road logging trail, where I saw no other humans but did see bear scat, a large 3-point buck, and a random hand-painted sign that said "My man Otis". The next few hours went like this: coffee, a group walk to the beach,
my 3 year-old niece in mini-human raingear,
clam chowder and fried razor clams for lunch, a dip in the pool and hot tub... all just distractions until it was time to go clamming again. Since we hadn't been able to go together the night before, we planned a group departure at 3:30.

Razor clamming is best 1-2 hours before low tide. The low tide was at 7:20 so going out at 3:30 was a little too early, but we were hoping to do some clamming in the light. We got down to the beach and saw similar dark black holes to the night before, and on the off-chance that they were clams, started digging... only to find sand shrimp! I had no idea that there were shrimp that lived under the sand. The seagulls overhead were happy with our find, but it wasn't of much use to us. The tide was still in too far for us to get to the clam zone. So I headed back to the house with my sister and a few others for a self-imposed "happy hour". We drank some wine and ate some brie and home-smoked tuna dip and felt fortified to head out for a second round.

There were about 12 of us out there clamming, so it was quite the family endeavor. As people reached their limit of 15 clams, they headed in, but of course those of us who had gone back to the house were a little behind in numbers. My 10 year-old niece was my faithful assistant, holding my catch bag when I couldn't in the whipping wind, and staying out as long as my step-dad and I did. My brother-in-law had already reached his limit, so he wasn't digging anymore, but he was scouting holes for us. He would call out, "Amber, over here!" or "Larry, here's one!" and keep his light trained on the tiny crater until we came over. That might have been my favorite time of the whole weekend- the working together, the inter-generational and almost tribal mentality of helping each other forage for food.
Later we had a pizza potluck and I made mulled wine. Then the music got turned up so loud that we could hardly talk, and the only thing left to do was dance. Cousins, aunts, sisters, mom, and yes, even my grandma couldn't help but shake it at the end of this wintery vacation day.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Babies Galore

You know those times when it seems like all your friends are getting married or having babies? Well, right now is one of those baby times. Just in the last couple weeks, 2 friends have given birth to beautiful, healthy babies. First, congratulations to cousin Mary on the little girl! Luckily she lives close by so hopefully I can meet the baby this week. Also, a big congrats to my friend Annie in California. I probably won't meet her son that soon, but I'm sooo happy for her and her husband.

Also recently, within the same two weeks, we found out that our immediate family is about to expand. Congrats to my brother Isaac and his girlfriend on their pregnancy, and to my sister Laura and her hubby on theirs. Two more nieces or nephews on the way!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Garlic Planting

So it's fall, which mostly means things are winding down in the garden. Maybe you planted root crops months ago to overwinter, or recently transplanted some established brassicas, but otherwise it would be crazy to think about seeding anything in this cold...That is, of course, except for garlic!

Mid-fall is the perfect time to plant garlic in our climate, so it can start to sprout, overwinter, then keep growing in the spring. I've been meaning to get garlic in the ground for weeks, and now is a tad on the late side, but better late than never! If you are thinking about it, Seattle Tilth has a great, simple guide to garlic planting with all the basics. You can use any cloves really, preferably ones that were grown in this region so you know they will do well. I got a red variety from Irish Eyes garden seeds.
And as I was prepping the bed to plant the garlic, I found some red potatoes that were somehow overlooked this summer. Bonus!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Day of the Dead

Halloween is my favorite holiday, hands down. There are the costumes, creativity, carved pumpkins, cold air, and candy. Heck, I don't even eat candy, usually only sweets that are homemade and/or organic, but for some reason the little chocolate bars that I usually find waxy and overly sweet are enjoyable.

But Halloween can swing too far in one of two directions- the preoccupation with goofy, slutty costumes and intense partying, or with darkness and fear. In my eyes, Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) exists as the perfect foil and balance to Halloween. On November 2nd in Mexico, families congregate around home and community altars to commemorate dead loved ones. It addresses death but in an intentional, festive way. The idea is that the spirits of the deceased are present, so you should set up the altar with things that they would enjoy- candles to light their way, their favorite foods, flowers, water so they can drink and wash their hands, etc. I recognize that I'm not Mexican, and this is not my culture's holiday, but I respect and value the space that is created to remember the deceased, something I feel we don't do enough of as Americans. Perhaps we visit a loved one's grave on their birthday, but otherwise we don't have a centralized time to celebrate and reflect on the people who have passed on.

A staple to any Day of the Dead celebration is the Pan de Muerto, or Dead Bread. It is a yeasted egg bread that is usually round, with crosses on it represent bones, and a tear drop in the middle for sorrow. This is the recipe I used, which seems pretty authentic and turned out well.
At my mom's house we set up an altar with the bread, plus fruit, and pictures of our loved ones. I also showed my 10 year-old niece how to make paper flowers with tissue paper. She made some, and along with real flowers, we added those to the altar.
As much as I love dressing up on Halloween, I often have a hard time coming up with a costume idea until right before the day. This year, since I was already so excited about Day of the Dead, I figured I stay with that theme and be a Mexican skeleton, also called La Catrina. I got a straw hat, sewed on some lace to the brim, and added flowers, and other tidbits, including a craft box lid straight from Oaxaca.
With a little face paint and skeleton body suit, the outfit was complete. I realized it was the first time I've ever really been something 'dead'. As kids in my family, we were never allowed to dress as anything dark, deadly, magical, evil, etc. My mom did not approve of that aspect of Halloween for kids. Which was fine, because I basically wanted to be a princess from age 5-11. But somehow the Skeleton didn't feel dark and evil- it felt totally appropriate to the season, and just the right mix of spirit and life.