Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Solstice and Christmas

The days leading up to Christmas were really fun this year. On the Friday before, we had our first snowfall of the season in Seattle! It was barely more than a dusting and melted by late morning, but it was still beautiful and enough to give schools a late start.
Saturday was Winter Solstice. Luckily, my good friend Will was free for a few hours, and willing to help me extract honey from my backyard hives. I had already harvested the extra honey frames at the end of summer, and tucked the bees in for the winter. But the frames have just been sitting in a tupperware bin in the house until I finally got around to renting the necessary extraction equipment. I set everything up in the basement, Will opened a delicious Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale, and we set to work. The first step was to cut the "caps" off the honey comb with a hot (electric) uncapping knife.
When the honey in a cell is ready, the bees magically know that the moisture content is below 18%, and they put a wax cover or "cap" over that cell. Here you can see how the knife slices off the thin cap to expose the honey in each cell.
If parts of the comb are too recessed and don't get cut with the knife, you have to use a capping scratcher to scratch off the wax cap.
I had a 4-frame hand-crank extractor, so after uncapping 4 frames, we loaded them in. And then spun it! The centrifugal motion forces the honey onto the walls of the extractor, then it runs down the walls and out a spout at the bottom.
It was so satisfying to see enough honey extracted to start flowing out. Pure honey straight from the comb, with bits of wax still in it. And on the shortest day of the year, to reap the abundance of the longest days. In a post on Will's blog he mentions the process, and sums it up well: "It was a sticky, sticky business to be sure, and became completely hilarious when we both got a little buzzed and I dropped my phone in a puddle of honey, but dude, really, can you think of a better way to celebrate the winter solstice?"

No, no I can't.

The evening was also appropriately celebratory for the holiday, as I cooked up a Smitten Kitchen eggplant dish and headed over to the Feast of the Winter Solstice, put on annually by the Fremont Arts Council. It's the biggest potluck you'll ever go to, a true feast, with hundreds and hundreds of people bringing food. There were about 8 tables that looked like this.
There's food, art, bonfire, lots of live music, dancing, and even headdresses to borrow. 

On Monday, I went to my aunt's house and she taught me how to make lefse. It's basically a Norwegian flatbread made with mashed potatoes and flour. She was an awesome teacher with all sorts of tricks and tips that she has learned over the years in making this traditional dish for our Christmas Eve party on the Norwegian side of the family. She even had a lefse-specific electric griddle and a wooden wand, like the ones that you would use to flip a crepe.
Then she said, "While you're here, do you want me to show you krumkake too?" Krumkake is a cookie-like dessert where the batter gets cooked thin in a decorative iron, then while it's still hot gets rolled up. When it cools, it's light and crispy.
Christmas was pleasant and mellow as ever. Christmas is just one day though, and I like that there really is a "holiday season" that spreads things out. I know it's cheesy, but the beauty of being an adult is that we can celebrate this time of year how we want. For me, I did lots of cooking and eating and drinking, but also a lot of cold, misty runs around Greenlake. I saw a lot of family, but also spent time with chosen family of dear friends who were back in town. And on Christmas night when everything was over, cleaning the kitchen and putting away wrapping paper brought some wistfulness and also a small sense of relief.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Beacon Food Forest: A Year in Review

I first heard about the Beacon Food Forest sometime early last year, possibly from an article like Seattle's First Urban Food Forest on NPR's The Salt. I was intrigued by the idea and wanted to get involved. From the Beacon Food Forest website, their goal is to "design, plant, and grow an edible urban forest garden that inspires our community to gather together, grow our own food, and rehabilitate our local ecosystem." It is one of the first of its kind in the U.S., and when it is finished at 7 acres, will probably be the largest. They broke ground in September 2012 and have been steadily working to develop the site from a grassy hillside next to Jefferson Park to a forest garden. Here is a review in photos of my experience with the project in 2013.

I got involved in February this year by going to a community work party (always held on the 3rd Saturday of the month). There were about 80-100 people helping with various stages of the sheet mulching process. Since the site was all grass, the very first step was to lay down compost, cardboard or burlap, and then wood chips. This "sheet mulching" technique will kill the grass and also add organic matter to the soil.

I know there was a lot more happening, like plants being planted, but really I mostly just remember massive amounts of wood chips, and lots of sheet mulching all winter and spring. In April, this National Geographic article called Seattle's Free Food Experiment came out.
Here are some shots from the April work party. You can see from above that there are two sections being worked on, called the Lower Bench and Upper Bench, separated by a small road. The Lower Bench got focused on first, and already has a lot of sheet mulching done. This area will be more of the "forest", with trees, shrubs, perennials, and also an apiary. A lot is already planted, but these plants are young and will take years to fill in. The Upper Bench is going to be a P-Patch, basically a more traditional community garden where groups and families will grow mostly annual veggies in designated beds. It had pretty minimal development at this point, as you can see the grass and lack of terracing.
By July, there was a beautiful open air community gathering plaza built, with benches and a place to meet and have lunch.
Building the forest floor via mulching continued, and borders and paths got more defined.
The Upper Bench now had raised beds, terraced garden beds outlined, a tool shed, and the gathering plaza.
Squashes, herbs, kale, cabbage, and broccoli were planted and/or harvested.
There are many generous and enthusiastic groups who offer to do work parties, and in September Expedia employees came to help as a corporate day of service. It was wet, but a fun day and they got so much done! I love seeing an area go from grassy, weedy, and rocky....
... to get cleaned up and made beautiful.
The pumpkins were done by this point, and the P-Patch beds got a good layer of compost.
In October I came across this Alternate Map of Seattle, where the project is referred to as the "Magical Food Forest". Pretty neat to be making it onto maps! At the work party, the beds in the Upper Bench continued to be worked on, with compost added and borders defined.
Even though it was cool and damp, there was still a great turn out of volunteers. A hugelkultur bed got created, which is a bed-building method using old wood at the base and mounding materials over it. It will be fun to see what gets grown in this bed!
We also built a worm bin,
the kids carved the pumpkins,
and more plants got planted, mostly blueberries.
Here is a view from above for perspective on how much the site had changed in 6 months.
In November we worked on putting the beds to bed, using the Interbay Mulch method of mixing leaves and coffee grounds and covering everything with burlap sacks. Hopefully by spring there will be some nice, rich soil for the P-Patch gardeners!
Now it's December, and there is not work party this month, but there will be on January 18th. There is a lot more I want to say, but at least this gives an overview. There was so incredibly much happening here all the time, it's awe-inspiring. I got involved where I could, but of course my experience is but a slice of all the progress. I predict even more work, fun, and food on this site in 2014!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Into That Dark Time of Year

It is really, seriously, officially fall. We set our clocks back a couple weeks ago and now we're in the thick of it- rainy days, howling wind, bare trees, leaves on the ground, and the light already fading at 4pm when I ride my bike home from work. 

It could be depressing, but here in the Pacific Northwest we learn to steel ourselves against the cold and dark and make the best of the season. That means wool socks and down jackets and long underwear. It means cooking more soups and baking more bread. It means drinking pumpkin ales (but not so many that you get sick of them). It means finally having more time to read again. It means remembering that we have rich internal lives, and are part of something larger, whatever you want to call that. Lately, I've found myself knowing what some one was going to say before they say it. There are beautiful and perplexing reports of Orca whales coming into the Puget sound and circling a ferry carrying tribal artifacts. Really, dark is not depressing, but rather reflective and a new way to define our comfort and human connections.

I think that's why Halloween and Day of the Dead come at the perfect time. Fear and celebration. Death and abundance. Decaying landscape and ornate costumes. Somehow, in the dark time of year, these things are not opposites but complimentary. This year for Halloween, my stepdad made an amazing haunted house in the garage, complete with strobe lights, scary noises, a fountain of blood, pop-up monsters, dry ice, gravestones, and giant spiders. Then to top it off, there were three live monsters- my mom, stepdad, and oldest niece. Horror and creativity combined to make a pretty fun family holiday.
A couple days later, my sister, nieces, and I went to the annual Day of the Dead festival at the Phinney Neighborhood Center. They start with a candle-light procession outside, then end inside with a myriad of family-friendly activities. We saw traditional dancers, watched sand-chalk art being made, got our faces painted, made tissue paper flowers, decorated sugar skulls, and ate dead bread.
I didn't get around to making my own altar this year, but I did make dead bread with anise, an orange glaze, and a bone criss-cross pattern on the top. Speaking of food, I made a fall batch of kimchi, which is the traditional time in Korea to make kimchi for the year. I got a huge napa cabbage from the farmer's market and salted it overnight. Then I slathered it in a sauce of onion, green onion, red pepper flakes, red pepper paste, ginger, garlic, and fish sauce.
The other part of embracing the fall is getting excited for snow. I don't ski or snowboard, but I'm still trying to get inspired to get into the mountains. Snowshoeing! Hot springs! Cozy cabins! I'm sure those things will come soon.

Fortunately I did get one last warm weather hike in in September- with snow at the top! It was the best of both worlds. If you've never been to Sauk Mountain off Highway 20, I highly recommend it. It's short but has incredible views. Just the trailhead is impressive. You can see way down the Skagit River valley.
Then as you round the mountain on the north and east side, you see all the Cascades. YOU SEE EVERY MOUNTAIN. Well, it certainly feels that way. 
How do you get through this dark time of year? What are your outdoor activities for fall and winter?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Enchant Me, Enchant Me Not

Ask a backpacker what the most spectacular wilderness area is in Washington state, and there's a good chance they'll say "The Enchantments." Part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area to the southwest of Leavenworth, the Enchantments is an area of lakes and tarns surrounded by the peaks of the Stuart Range. Friends have described the area as stunning, alien, unique within the Cascades, and truly breathtaking.

Not surprisingly, the Enchantments are incredibly popular--so much so that staying overnight requires a permit through a lottery system. It is the only backcountry camping lottery permit in Washington state, and one of only a handful of lottery systems in the whole United States. The lottery application is in late February, then the winners are picked in March. That determines who will get to camp there during the prime (less likely to be covered in snow) time of June 15 to October 15.

Last year I wanted to go, and my friend Katie applied for a permit for us. She didn't get it, but I still REALLY wanted to go. I rallied a few crazy friends who decided we would try to do the whole hike in one day in September, since you don't need a permit if you're not staying overnight. It's a pretty burly day trip--18 miles long and 5,000 feet of elevation gain. That is far more strenuous than my average day hike, but for the Enchantments I was willing to do it. I would get up at 4am or whatever it took-- I WOULD do the Enchantments that year.

Lo and behold, by the time lovely September came--sunny clear skies, leaves just starting to turn--the wildfires came too. You may not remember, but last year there were huge fires in eastern WA, creating hazardous air quality conditions and shutting down our long-awaited trail for the season. It just wasn't meant to be in 2012.

So this year, I approached the lottery system more determined and more strategic. I talked to five other groups of friends applying for permits, and we agreed that whoever got a permit would take the other party along. In March, we eagerly awaited the results. And then, NONE of us got one.

However, I had just started dating Max, and he had applied on a whim right before the deadline, and got a permit! It was for the end of September, which is a great time for seeing the larch change color, but also risky for late season weather. Nonetheless, I was excited and hoped we would still be dating in 7 months! He got a group of 7 of us together, plans were made, packing lists disseminated, and we looked forward to it for over half the year.

Then, the DAY BEFORE we were going to leave, western Washington got hit with a crazy huge uncharacteristic freakish storm. Like torrential downpours, possible flooding, and snow around 6,000 feet and above. At first, just thinking we were going to get a little rain, our party was still planning to go on the backpacking trip. I had a few friends though who expressed their concern and pointed out that this was not just going to be a rainy weekend. Once we looked at the forecast more, it became clear that the trip was not possible. Our highest point would be Asgard Pass at 7,800 feet, putting much of the upper part of our trail under a dumping of fresh snow and up to 40 mph winds.

So the day before the long-awaited date, we called it off. I could not believe that my Enchantment plans were foiled again.

We considered going somewhere else at a lower elevation that wouldn't be hit by snow. Maybe the Olympics? Max called a ranger station, and spoke with a ranger who advised against backpacking due to flood danger. He called the upcoming weather conditions "apocalyptic."

With that, I officially decided that an outdoor adventure was not in the cards for the weekend, and to just enjoy some indoor activities. I read a book. A WHOLE BOOK. I went to the University farmer's market for some goodies that I would cook that day: pears to can in a brandied vanilla syrup; leeks to make soup with potatoes from my garden; bok choy to do a sesame garlic sauté for dinner; and napa cabbage to start brining to make kimchi. I also baked drop biscuits, ginger-pumpkin muffins, and a pumpkin cheesecake. I listened to music and drank hard cider and just enjoyed having time to make things in the kitchen.

Turns out I haven't made a lot of time for that lately since when it's nice I just want to be outside. But sometimes a weekend of crazy rain is what you need to just hunker down. And once again, I will wait for the Enchantments and hope that 2014 is the year.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Wedding Bike Ride to Port Townsend

Two weeks ago some friends of mine got married. While most people just drive to out-of-town weddings, I was inspired by Tessa Hulls to ride my bike. She is a friend in Seattle who rides her bike most places, whether around town, to a mutual friend's wedding outside Portland, or coming home from a trip in Alaska. (She is the one who gave me a great run-down on her bike touring packing list right before I did the Oregon Coast bike trip.) My boyfriend had already left town on Friday, so on Saturday morning I set out solo to ride from my house in Seattle out to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

I'm north of the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry, so I decided to take the Edmonds-Kingston ferry and not have to backtrack. In the grey morning light I got on the interurban and pedaled north, barely giving myself enough time to make the intended ferry. I got to the ferry dock after all the cars were loaded and the boat was full, and I looked pleadingly at the ferry worker, "Can I still get on?"

"Go grab a ticket!" he replied, to which I bolted in and out of the terminal. I rode down the dock past all the cars, onto the full ferry, just before they pulled away.

It was a beautiful, foggy crossing on Puget Sound. It had been forecasted to be sunny, but it was fairly mild and very misty. A lot of small boats were on the water, and I watched a salmon jump over and over.

From Kingston I hopped on 104, which is a somewhat busy but pleasant enough road with a wide shoulder. The Hood Canal bridge was pretty to cross, and pads had been laid on the sharp grates on the shoulder for bicycles.

Just after the bridge I got to my favorite section of the ride. For about 2 miles, you can take the parallel Shine Road, which goes along the water, lined with cute houses and yards and fruit trees.
The rest of the ride went smoothly, with long gradual hills. About four miles before Port Townsend, I got onto the Larry Scott bike trail. It was a peaceful, wooded bike trail that eventually will go all the way to Neah Bay. But for now it was just nice to have a separate bike trail coming into town.
Once the trail got closer to the city, it opened up to the coast. I could see the ferry, lots of sailboats, and a half-sunken mini-ship.
I arrived at the wedding venue of Fort Worden State park just within my comfortable time limit. I was an hour early, and I'm glad I wasn't any later! I had just enough time to take a quick shower at the main house and throw on a dress that had been rolled up in my pannier. Dangly earrings, leather flats, a little mascara, and no one would suspect that I had just arrived sweaty, in bike shorts. Last time I checked, that does not make for the best wedding attire.

There was a drinks and appetizers happy hour before the wedding. I'm a big fan of the pre-event cocktail hour- weddings go so fast that it gives the guests more time to chat, and slows the day down a bit. It also gave my ravenous stomach a chance to normalize.

The ceremony was outside, which the bride had been adamant about. Even if it had ended up pouring rain, the wedding would have taken place outside. Luckily, the sun came out and it was a profoundly beautiful afternoon. Here's the groom and officiant waiting for the bride by a huge pacific madrone.
The ceremony was heartfelt, funny, and original. The chairs for guests were arranged in almost a complete circle. I like the inclusive, community feeling of that shape more than the straight, spectator rows. Then the bride walked down the aisle (well, across the field) to a live electric guitar Jimmy Hendrix-esque version of Here Comes the Bride. The couple wrote their own vows which were incredibly beautiful. There was also no shortage of humor with lines like, "I will always be there for you. When you are cold, I will keep you warm. When you are hot, I will take off your clothes." Also, instead of a flower girl, they had three "flower knights", who were all brothers in medieval costumes and capes, throwing petals. Later they came around before dinner to hand out little roses to all the guests.
After the ceremony it was happy hour before dinner, but I couldn't bring myself to stay inside. The light was incredible, warm early evening light with unexpected layers of coastal fog.
We climbed around on the old military bunkers, watched the water, and played with little kids until it was time for dinner. The rest of the evening was a blast- trivia about the couple, cake, lots of dancing. I know it sounds cliche, but those two really do make a fabulous couple, and I wish them the absolute best. I'm so happy for them that they found each other, and happy for me that I had a fun destination for  a longer bike ride.