Thursday, 25 November 2010

More Berkeley, October- Early November 2010

It is the season for the figs to ripen: the tree is very large and now that the rain has set in, the ripe figs sometimes split, and some ferment a bit where they are damaged. And the squirrels and birds get the earliest ripening and choicest ones near the top of the tree.  I took the video above from the kitchen window, before many figs at human level were ripe yet.  The squirrels here are very well fed, as you can see, and quite a bit larger than the ones seen in Mexico City, where the squirrel population in the Viveros is huge (I think I heard that they had imported few hawks or falcons to reduce the population recently). They are very scrawny compared to the Berkeley squirrel population, and also differently coloured - lots of black, grey  and brindle squirrels in Mexico City, here they all seem to be brown. Now (November) I go out every few days and pick up to two dozen  figs, and am using them in salads a lot and eating them as I pass them sitting in their wicker basket on the kitchen bench (or in the fridge on warm days, of which we are having fewer lately) . I give them away as well, and put out a bowl whenever we have visitors.  They concentrate their flavour after a few days, though I eat the ones which are split or otherwise damaged quickly, and there is always a percentage that go straight from tree to mouth - ah, the benefits of an organic garden!  Two years ago when we were in this house, I think we had a bigger crop and  found a few different ways to cook them: my favourite was to cut a cross in the stem end,  stuff in  some soft goat cheese and a sprig of fresh rosemary from the garden, drizzle with a bit of honey and a grind or two of black pepper, and run them under the griller for about 5 minutes. Lovely hot or cold, great at breakfast.

Though back in the routine of 4 exercise classes, 2 swims, choir rehearsals, etc., I haven't attended many Tertulias this semester. Being away on the East Coast for a month didn't help, then I had a few clashes with operas or plays.  But I managed to get to one in mid-October. I car pooled with Anne Shapiro  and a Latin American friend of hers to Oakland - we  misread the instructions, and got slightly lost - nothing whatever to do with me for once!  It was a very hot night, and most Berkeley/Oakland homes don't have air conditioning as it rarely gets so hot, so I was wearing a very light and open top and I sat near an open window and enjoyed a bit of fresher air. I found an article in the New York Times about all-time favourite pot-luck recipes, and modified the potato salad one below using multi-coloured teeny potatoes (including a purple kind which has purple flesh, not just purple skin, along with pink and yellowish skinned varieties) , which I left whole in their skins.The visual appeal was really good, everyone was fascinated, as much by the interesting potatoes as the taste. I was missing some ingredients so I substituted others, and didn't measure anything. I've made the salad again as part of a vegetarian dinner,and  followed the recipe more precisely with better results - there were no leftovers at all! Here is the recipe:


Warm Fingerling Potato Salad

As featured in the New York Times Magazine
If you scour the internet (or your cookbook collection) long enough, you’ll find that potato salad recipes are divided into two main camps — chilled and slathered in mayonnaise, or warm and dripping with bacon grease.
I chose to go another route. My potato salad is sumptuous, savory, vegan, and gluten-free — how’s that for mass appeal!
I used fingerling potatoes, which hold their shape well when steamed, making them perfect for salad. They are dense and buttery as is, and coated with a warm cider vinegar dressing, they become irresistible. Capers, Dijon mustard, and kosher salt ensure a well-seasoned salad, and fresh parsley and chives really liven things up, cutting the richness of the dressing. Served at a potluck, this salad will disappear before you know it. You might want to double the recipe. Oh, and it gets better the longer it sits. What more could you ask for?
Warm Fingerling Potato Salad
serves 6
1 1/2 lbs. fingerling potatoes
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
3 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. capers, rinsed and drained
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 C. chopped parsley
1/4 C. chopped chives
1. Steam the potatoes for 20 minutes, or until you can easily pierce them with a paring knife.
2. While potatoes are steaming, heat the olive oil in a medium (10″) skillet over medium heat. Add the red onion, and saute until onions are softened but not browned, about 10 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat under the skillet and add the vinegar, capers, mustard, pepper, and salt. Set aside.
4. While they are still hot, slice the potatoes into 1/4″ rounds.
5. Add the potatoes, parsley, and chives to the skillet, and stir gently until all potatoes are coated evenly. Serve warm or at room temperature.


More music after my YMCA exercise class on Monday - Anne Shapiro, whom I originally met 3 years ago at the seniors' exercise class at the JCC and who introduced me to the Spanish Tertulia group, was singing at the Etude club, held in another Hogwart's style  hall near here in the Berkeley Hills, at lunchtime.  I don't belong to clubs at home, so have no idea if this kind of organisation exists in Melbourne - it seems a bit quaint and olde worlde to me, though at their procedural meeting before the concert started, they were discussing establishing an email list!   Sonya and I heard her lovely renditions of the Spanish songs she had chosen, along with a piano recital and a  harp and piano duet. Anne's diction is very clear, and assisted by the text of the songs and a rough translation, it was easy, and very gratifying for me,  to be able to follow the Spanish.She was a little concerned about her voice , having caught a bit of a cold, she thought from the fierce air conditioning in the car on the way to the Tertulia the previous week.

Barry's academic activities here are always in full swing throughout October and November. He went off to a conference in New Orleans for a few days and I dropped him off and picked him up again at Oakland airport. The run there was easy and fast on a workday around lunchtime, and I even found my way back from the airport to an X-Ray facility in Oakland without getting lost.  Mind you, there was awful traffic, apparently often experienced on this route, the Sunday afternoon I picked him up, so it took more than twice as long getting there this time - he would have arrived much faster had he taken the Air-BART bus-train combination  from the airport! (in case you are worried about the X-Ray, it was a check to establish whether there were any structural problems underlying my various episodes of back pain prior to going to see a physio or chiropractor, and there was nothing beyond the progressive wear and tear I have known about for ages.)

While he was away, Marisela Fleites-Lear came to stay for the weekend, as a close friend from Berkeley  had passed away and she will be unable to attend the formal memorial service a bit later in the year. I last saw her about a year ago when we visited her and John in Tacoma (I think there is a blog entry about our visit). She therefore had some commitments but we managed to get in a walk along the fishing pier at the Marina (I neglected to take any photos, however), dinner on Solano Avenue, and to catch the Woody Allen movie "You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger".  We each had a fish dinner at a place I have seen but wouldn't normally have chosen, but the menu looked good and the fish was well cooked and presented with very nice vegetables, with  very affordable wine by the glass. Very Weight Watcher friendly, too. It was right across from the movie theatre at the bottom of Solano. We finished eating  in time to walk all the way up to the top of Solano Avenue and back again, noting all the delicious smells emerging from the more interesting ethnic restaurants we probably should have tried. The movie itself was the same comedy of manners movie he has been making the last few years, with some excellent performances from an all-star cast, even if most of them played rather unlikeable characters. Gemma Jones, who made an impression on me many years ago as the Duchess of Duke Street, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin and various lesser lights all were looking for love, or more likely, escape from themselves.

The next week Myrna Santiago invited me to join Barry at a talk he was giving for her students and others at St Mary's College where she teaches.  She included me in the dinner she  had organised for the academic staff who have an interest in Latin America to meet Barry, at an excellent Thai restaurant in the nearby village of Rheem (I couldn't suppress an urge to sing "Install a Rheem..". For those non-Australians reading this, a company called Rheem supplies many of our gas water systems, and they have a catchy jingle. )  We took BART to a nearby town, a different line and direction to our usual service, and the train was very crowded as I guess it was the afternoon commute time. But whatever country we could see from the train looked really beautiful, and also what we saw from Myrna's car when she picked us up at the station and drove us to the dinner and on to the campus was lovely.  We really don't do any local exploring to speak of - if Barry is not working on a weekend we tend to gravitate towards San Francisco rather than other regions around the Bay. I guess we are both urban creatures - we don't often get out into the country in Melbourne either, much as I love the scenery when we do get out.  The talk was well attended and went well, and Myrna drove us home when it was over - she and Garrett live in El Cerrito, quite close really. Just on a geographic tidbit proffered by a former librarian from Cal, who gave Barry a lift home one day and was admiring our view over coffee and cookies,  el cerrito means the little hill - which we can see clearly from our kitchen window and today it is actually Albany.

One of the other activities Barry was involved in was a short conference on  Mexico: The Unfinished Revolution, held at Berkeley in conjunction with an exhibition on Mexico at the Bancroft Library (I haven't seen this yet so can't comment about it.  I tried posting something from the Bancroft's home page here, but I couldn't manage to insert it and continue adding text, so I had to delete the post and start again. I will attempt a kludge shortly, but if it doesn't work I will post the link instead. As you can see, I got the cartoon but I can't blow it up enough to read and translate the contents of the speech bubble for you.)

 As well as the academic papers which are Barry's domain, there were two events I participated in. The first was a public screening of  "The Storm that Swept Mexico", a 2-hour documentary about the history of the Mexican Revolution in which Barry was one of the talking heads.  His commentary was filmed last year at Berkeley, though the film has been 11 years in the making. The film even included interviews with several Mexicans who had taken part in revolutionary battles (who were very old then and have since passed away), lots of archival footage, and many different  heads, talking in Spanish and English.

The film will be screened on PBS television here next May.  It had its premiere at a conference at the ANU in Canberra a few days before we left Melbourne.  Kenn Rabin, one of the co-producers who is a well-known film maker and renowned archivist , was a guest at this conference, at Barry's suggestion, and brought an early copy of the film, not the final cut, to show there. I had been too busy at the time to go to Canberra with Barry to see it, so it was my first viewing.  It has quite detailed historical coverage of the first 10 years of the Mexican Revolution.  Very informative, lots about Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata and early presidents and dictators - Barry thinks it will be very useful for teaching about the Mexican Revolution, though the later years, covered thematically rather than in detail, interested me more. When Kenn came to Melbourne for a few days (and fell in love with our fair city, very gratifyingly) we had dinner together and I got to know him a bit, so it was nice to renew our acquaintance at the reception before the screening, and to be introduced to other key figures like the co-producer, and  the writer and arranger of the music (which is really good). Both at the reception and at subsequent meetings with Kenn, the difficulties of getting finance for making and distributing such an ambitious independent film project  have become much clearer to me. Any angels out there who would like to help out - please get in touch and I'll pass on your details to Kenn!

Sonya and Philip came to the screening and we went for  coffee and cake afterwards - it was their wedding anniversary.  Learning more than you wanted to know about the Mexican Revolution is probably not the most romantic way to spend an evening, I felt a bit guilty for inviting them to come!

This was on Thursday evening, and then on the Saturday night I joined Barry at the closing dinner of the conference, a very nice Mexican-themed meal in the Faculty club, another Harry Potter/Hogwart's  type of room.  A month later I am still looking at a vase of chilies, the last remaining parts of one of the very fetching floral table decorations which were offered to various people after the dinner (it felt like I had been at a Barmitzvah,  taking home a floral arrangement!)

Golden Gate at Sunset from Marin looking back to San Francisco

The next day I hosted an extra rehearsal for the altos from the East Bay Jewish Folk Chorus. We are quite a large group this year, nine of us, and we seem to have a lot of the melodies.  Some of the more experienced singers amongst us are a bit disappointed, finding the harmonies more interesting to sing, though I like it. In any case, there are quite a few new songs and new people, so the extra practice is welcome, and I have space here. Someone brings a keyboard and we work quite hard, taking only a little time for some nibbles or cake and a cuppa or some wine. We get to know each other a bit better, which I am sure helps us sing better. This first rehearsal was quite hard to coordinate, but now we are in a groove with a fixed time, so it's a lot easier to get us all together, or at least whoever isn't busy at 4.30 on Sunday afternoon.

Then Barry was off again, this time to a Mexican historians conference in Queretaro, Mexico, and for a whole week.  I managed to get a ticket to see Compulsion at the Berkeley Rep on the Wednesday night, which took a lot of calling and a fortuitous visit to the theatre box office after my swim the day before, just as someone called in a cancellation, as the entire season was booked out. Sonya and Philip and two of their friends were going that night, and we all had dinner at a Chinese restaurant before the play. It starred Mandy Patinkin and was a very interesting play indeed. He was absolutely stunning- my seat was in the middle of the front row - Berkeley Rep is theatre in the round and I have never been so close and felt so overwhelmed by the sheer force of a performer. There were two other actors, each of whom was also very good in multiple roles, and marionettes which worked brilliantly.  The play is based around the story of Meyer  Levin, who brought the Diary of Anne Frank to the attention of the English-speaking world, though the protagonist is called Sid Silver. Anne Frank is portrayed by a marionette and voices off.  The play raised a whole lot of questions about truth and fiction, universal versus Jewish values, obsessions in general. I thought it really worked well - one of my best ever nights at the theatre. Quoting from the an interview with the playwright,Rinne Groff in the playbill:

"Meyer Levin wrote a book called Compulsion about Leopold and Loeb

Here is a link to get you started if you are interested in the play.  I do hope it comes to Melbourne - I am certain it will come to New York.

On Friday of that week I had invited Betsy, Nancy and MD (the car poolers to my Y exercise classes last year and occasionally again this year) and Sonya to lunch - the Friday morning class was cancelled as the Y was preparing for their Halloween festival, but we decided that shouldn't stop us having lunch anyway.  I made mushroom soup which was a big hit.  At the Monterey market they have so many varieties of mushrooms that I am stunned into indecision and end up choosing the familiar ones I feel safe with. But when I went shopping for stuff for the lunch, I noticed they were selling big bags of exotic mixed mushrooms, probably yesterday's, very cheaply, maybe only $2.49 a lb, so this solved my dilemma. I also bought an assortment of fruit that looked and smelled good, including some imported blood oranges from Australia.  I made a lot of soup using sauteed leeks and the carefully washed and sliced/chopped mushrooms, with stock and powdered skim milk, lightly thickened with a roux, and it was really delicious. I also served some spanakopita with a salad of various mixed leaves and some cherry tomatoes and some figs  from the garden.  Betsy avoids eating members of the shade family (eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes)  as doing so assists her arthritis, but I figured she could avoid the tomatoes and didn't include anything else dodgy. I made a fruit salad and popped in a couple of ripe feijoas from the garden, and served orange and almond cake on a plate with some of the sliced blood oranges. We sat on and on around the table talking about plays and shows and operas we had seen, books we had read, the state of the nation etc - most enjoyable.

A day after Barry returned from Mexico we had his Graduate Student Instructors from this year and last and a couple of others for dinner. Most were vegetarian or preferred to eat kosher, so I prepared a vegetarian meal, which made for a relaxed evening for me as I had done most of the preparation beforehand. As well as another pot of mushroom soup , spanakopita and a mixed salad, I made the potato salad, sticking more closely to the recipe this time.  I also was planning on making some kind of ratatouille, but when I was at the market I saw the most appealing little yellow and green button squash, so decided to make a "deconstructed" ratatouille: I prepared the onions/eggplant/ multi-coloured capsicums/tomatoes (no mushrooms as we had the soup)  as in ratatouille, incorporating lots of herbs from the garden, but used that as a bed and laid out the vivid frilly-edged little squash on top and baked the whole thing in the oven the day before. Then I crumbled a little bit of tasty cheese on top when I reheated it on the night. It looked really nice, really showing off the fall produce to advantage. One of the guests brought a fruit salad for dessert and I made an apple cake with grannies from the garden, another nice evening. Two of the guests had newish babies but only Sarah  brought Eleni - Bea and Dani left Emmet with her parents, I think, so although they had a more relaxed evening, I didn't get much granny practice in.

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