Boxes, Black Beans and Blood Oranges

This past weekend, two generous and talented friends came over to help make one of our dreams into a reality. One of our urban homesteading dreams, that is. We are SO blessed to have friends who care about our desires to produce our own food and set a small, but to us important, example of what it means to live (or at least eat) off the land in a small town where we hope more and more food is being grown. We are hoping to gently influence some of our East Bay/Piedmont and Oakland neighbors to perhaps carve out a few feet of space to grow some herbs, maybe even some kale (of course KALE), if they haven’t already. The anticipation and anxious feelings surrounding growing our own food is so exciting.

My father-in-law said something a few weeks ago that keeps sticking out in my head. He said that we as American’s, and the way our society and culture dictates change, seems to be driven by emergency situations. To that point, just because there isn’t a war, i.e. World War II, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to develop our own ways of being self-sufficient. This is where the concept of the Victory Garden popped into my head. Taking any space that you have, even if it’s in the form of pots in the windowsill of your studio apartment, or on the kitchen table. Historically, the Victory Garden was supposed to boost morale and empower all citizens to take advantage of their own backyard resources, supporting themselves and the war effort by growing food, raise certain animals and live off of the land, to a certain degree (or even pots or planter boxes). For more information on what’s going on in places like Oakland in regards to urban farming and Victory Gardening, there is a lot to thumb through at The Victory Garden Foundations’ website, and this amazing website. I found this through catching up with works by artist Amy Franchescini, whom I saw at the SFMOMA and who has been honored for the SECA award in the past. TRULY innovative and artistic eco-creative stuff, but I digress a bit.

Blog title item #1: BOXES. We now have one of two planter boxes built and ready for sealing, concrete laying (we have to with our webs of redwood root-age. No wonder redwood trees are so resilient, large, ancient and amazing. Their roots go EVERYWHERE!) and planting. I think we need starters (not seeds) and will go for tomatoes, carrots, LOTS of greens (lettuces, kale, chard, kale and more kale) and maybe try our hand at some blueberries under the redwood trees. Apparently they like acidic soil. SO many possibilities! But we did get the Sunset Western Garden Book, which is basically a bible to grow anything. I have also heard that Golden Gate Gardening is a must buy for growing food and any plants in the San Francisco Bay Area, since our climate is so diverse (and amazing – no bias here).

Felled redwoods from a nearby vacant lot. Friends asked for permission to mill the wood, we paid the friends for the service and amazing skill with which the wood was milled and cut, and here the redwood planks await…for planter box making!

Russ, Scotty and Tim savoring one of the finished boxes, after Scotty and Tim produced a beautiful piece. We watched and provided food (Thanksgiving sandwiches, anyone?) beer and cold water, and Russ lent a hand and helped with heavy lifting and other tasks. Can’t mess with perfection, ladies and germs. I hope Tim and Scotty aren’t annoyed at how in awe I am and how I ask constantly how they know so much about so much. ; ) They are amazing friends.

If you build it, they will come! And now…if we grow it, we will eat!

We were fortunate to have great friends helping us out, who knew how to deal with dimension, measurements very accurately…and had the tools. Scotty and Tim are really talented people.

On to the topic of black beans. I found a recipe in a magazine that I usually toss aside (I won’t say which one…but I have narrowed my view since I started subscribing to Whole Living, which I love). The night of the box building, we were having friends over for dinner. I haven’t done too much with any regional South American themed recipes, and I still have so much to experiment with and learn. This recipe was one of those you look at with uncertainty, with about 50 kagillion ingredients that you know you probably don’t have in your pantry. But…I decided to take it on and give it a makeover. The recipe was for pork and plantain enchiladas with black bean puree. I had black beans already, and a good amount of ingredients it called for, but wanted to make it a bit more simple…and vegetarian. So, from this recipe, I just dropped a few things and, even though it was still a bit complicated (sort of like Thanksgiving in a dish, with multiple components to coordinate at once), I still had a lot of fun doing it.

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 chopped yellow onions, divided
  • 1 2/3 cups organic chicken or vegetable broth, divided
  • 6 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped and divided
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves (plus more for garnish)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans organic black beans, rinsed and drained (Eden Organics brand does not have BPA lining in the cans – that’s a GOOD thing). Or you can cook your own beans (soak and sprout) which ups their nutritional value. I didn’t have time this week.
  • 2 tablespoons of raw honey
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 soft sweet, ripe plantains, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • Olive oil
  • 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas (try to get as “clean” as you can. Many seemingly pure corn tortillas usually have lots of other additives in there.
  • 4 cups cooked brown rice
  • Sour cream or “crema,” which is basically cream that some South American cuisine’s use for garnishing. I added a little honey to make it sweet to complement the plantains
  1. For tomatillo sauce: combine 1 choppped onion, 1 cup broth, tomatillos, 1 garlic clove, and serrano in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until tomatillos are tender. Cool for 10 minutes. Combine tomatillo mixture, cilantro, lime juice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a blender; process until smooth. Pour into a large measuring cup.
  2. For Black Bean Puree: Place skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add the remaining onion; cook for 3 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Add remaining garlic clove; cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add remaining 2/3 cup broth, and cook for 1 minute, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Add black beans; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Cool slightly. Place black bean mixture in blender. Pulse 15 times, scraping occasionally until mixture is a thick puree.
  3. For Plantains: Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoon oil to pan; swirl to coat. Combine 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, honey, and plantains in a medium bowl, tossing to coat plantain. Add plantain mixture to pan; sautée for 3 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently. Cool slightly; finely chop.
  4. ASSEMBLY TIME: Next, I heated the corn tortilla’s slightly in the oven to soften them up, and then keep them warm. I put out a buffet of all ingredients for everyone to pile onto their tortilla’s, like soft tacos (including the brown rice, plantains, tomatillo sauce, black bean puree, crema, and garnish with more cilantro.

The spread (salad, tomatillo, crema and cilantro), brown rice, black bean puree (under foil) and plantains in the foreground

A simple side salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds and simple, homemade mustard vinaigrette dressing (my favorite!)

To accompany? Friends Ryan and Liz (Liz is a culinary student, and amazing cook, in Napa, so it was fun to get her input on the meal) brought fixings for blood orange margarita’s. I love them…and not just for their creative booze concoctions.  ; )

Blood oranges await their fate: freshly squeezed juice for us!

The mixologist hard at work

SO refreshing. Tequila, agave syrup, Cointreau (I think?) and fresh-squeezed blood orange juice

And that was our weekend. Fun times, good friends, great food and the pursuit of happiness through planter box building. EMBRACE URBAN FARMING and stay tuned for more on our journey towards home-grown kale and farm fresh eggs.

Want to love any subject you loathed in school? Check this out…

Sorry…no food this week. But I encourage you to read on, and get a refresher on the Kreb’s Cycle in Biology or the Baroque period in Art History. Let me explain.

The Khan Academy is no con (had to say it…just had to). It is, however, a brilliant way of using YouTube and the internet as your own private tutor. The key to this now developed company is Sal Khan, an obviously brilliant but seemingly down to earth guy, whose “About” paragraph on his website says, “Before quitting his job as manager of a hedge fund to run the Khan Academy full time, Sal also found time to get three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard.” Enough said about his intellect. And he actually makes things very easy to understand, utilizing the some of the best aspects of online video play (pause, play, rewind, etc.) to…teach anyone about anything, for lack of a better description. I am sure many people have heard of the Khan Academy (more here from a great 60 Minutes report by Dr. Sanjay Gupta (a secret celebrity crush of mine)) but this report shows how it is impacting education in the classroom and student comprehension. It does not, however, belittle the need for teachers in the classroom (as a teacher friend of mine explained). It does, however, allow teachers to give students more one on one attention, even in classrooms where there is a 30:1 student to teacher ratio. The 60 Minutes report outlines this concept well.

The way it works is Sal Khan, or some of the other Khan Academy “teachers”, record their verbal and written or drawn explanations of the chosen topic and post this as a video up on their website (YouTube, as well). You can then listen and visualize along with your online lecturer, pausing and continuing along at your speed and understanding. And don’t worry if you find yourself rewinding at certain points for some topics. And rewinding, and rewinding, and rewinding. Story of my life. But with Khan Academy, I still get to the point of understanding that I need. And there aren’t those elementary feelings of frustration I used to get after algebra or during time with my tutor. This is really comprehensive.

Sal Khan recording a lesson

Sal Khan recording a lesson

For me, and for nutrition, the Khan Academy is great way to go back to the basics of what cancer is, for example, or how diabetes develops. Sometimes it’s hard for me to articulate the basics when the “curse of knowledge” sets in (knowing all of the micro-details, and losing sight of how to explain the big picture). So, when you or your kid has a math, science, history…or any test that they, or you, are dreading to study for, check out Khan Academy. I am hoping that by the time I have kids (and if they inherit my lack of math skills), that Khan Academy will be a well-integrated format used in the school system in the Bay Area…at least. From a health and nutrition point of view, one of the topics I am looking forward to watching a video for is Intelligent Design and Evolution. This is a GREAT one to help us all realize how complex the human body is, and beyond, and how important it is to do what we can to help it function at its best (ok, there is my “health and wellness” plug).

If the Khan Academy can explain Valuation and Investing to me, they can explain it to ANYONE. Enjoy and EMBRACE YOUR KNOWLEDGE!

Cooking Bonanza: Part II

The Cooking Bonanza for the month of March turned out to be a random but fun and interesting hodge podge of people with a variety of dishes. We went vegetarian, and created some colorful and delicious dishes, loved by all. And, I was introduced to one of the newest loves of my life: the garbanzo bean chocolate cake.

To start, I had Casa Sanchez Totopos chips out on the counter to snack on while cooking, which I always have on hand and I could (and have) eaten whole bags of in one sitting. This was then accompanied, unexpectedly, by kale pesto I had made for the brown rice spaghetti. Yep! Kale pesto* as a dip. I don’t recall exactly when the kale pesto idea came into my life, but I am hooked…and have found a great recipe to sneak into people’s diets who don’t otherwise enjoy denser green leafy’s. And the kale is in its raw form when blended into pesto! Thus, it is at its best. I have graced you with the recipe and a photo of the green wonder dip/sauce below:

Before pulverization!

Before pulverization!

Makes about 1 cup. You will need the following:

  • ½ cup raw walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
  • 1 bunch kale, long stems chopped off, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3/4 extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Chop garlic. Add kale, walnuts and cheese and about half of the olive oil and pulse until chopped. You may have to open the top of the blender or food processor to assist in mixing, and push the kale down toward the blades.
  2. With the food processor or blender low, add the rest of the olive oil in a steady stream until you get the consistency you want. You may add a bit more oil if desired.
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper (always taste before you season!)
  4. Serve with chips or raw veggies as a dip or over brown rice, quinoa or brown rice pasta. YUM!


Why is kale so awesome? First off, it is an amazing source of vitamin K, A, C, manganese and fiber. Why do we care about vitamin A or K? Many specific reasons, but all you need to remember is that your body needs everything all the time, to quote one of my teachers’ at Bauman College. A few more kale facts: it contains cancer-preventing phytonutrients, is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and a great source of fiber. The darker the green, the better. Lacinto, or “dino”, is my favorite, but there are other varieties that aren’t as dense. That was quick and painless, right?

On to the food. There was quinoa with some great herbs and spices that Heather and Karen made, that was hot, and I mean HOT pink. Only nature could come up with this color: beets! Mixed with melted goat cheese. Heather had lightly steamed carrots and, I believe, added some rainbow chard – they were refreshing and naturally sweet.

Yum to the beet.

ORANGE you glad we got some carrots in there!? Next to the cauliflower dip, homemade super simple sauerkraut with hijiki and tamari sesame seeds – a great topping for any dish.

Next we had another superbly savory dip from Annaka, shown above next to the beet quinoa. I think it was pureed cauliflower, but I don’t know what else she used to make it into the creamiest, yummiest thing I have ever had. Thought she couldn’t top the “cream” of mushroom soup? Think again.

Veronique made a super fresh salad with greens and lettuce from Monterey Market in Berkeley, which I have yet to visit and have heard is beyond legendary. Heirloom tomatoes and fresh, homemade honey mustard vinaigrette. Less is always more with salads. Veronique is one of my favorite people. She is spreading the word about her practice, as well, and continues to inspire me.

I tell you. Quality of ingredients really showed through here. That lettuce was delectable…and that’s a lot to say of lettuce.

And, of course, because who doesn’t like garnet yams (more popularly knows as sweet potatoes), we had two dishes of roasted sweet potatoes, one with onions, rutabaga and fresh herbs and mine with a honey miso marinade.

I love, I love, I love

Dig in, my lovelies.

Last, but absolutely not least, we have my friend Karen’s chocolate garbanzo bean cupcake recipe. I think I’ve made it about 5 times since the first time I was introduced to it, and that was only about three weeks ago. And they weren’t necessarily delivered to anyone or made for anyone…sometimes, you just need a friend…in chocolate. Need I say more? Check out the recipe, slightly modified from the original (and I always double the recipe to make close to 30 mini cupcakes). THANKS KAREN!

  • 1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (Ghirardelli is good – and if you are sensitive to dairy, gluten or soy, there are some brands out there that don’t contain these common allergens, such as the Enjoy Life brand)
  • 1 15 oz can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed (or you can cook your own. If you purchase canned, be sure to get the BPA free canned beans, such as Eden Organics brand. Many cans contain plastic in the lining that has BPA, or bisphenol-A, an endocrine disruptor chemical in many plastics that has been linked to cancer and other human diseases)
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3 large eggs, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.Place chocolate chips in food processor or blender first, then beans, then baking soda, then eggs.

2. Pulse mixture until it starts to turn chocolatey brown and the chips break up nicely. They don’t all have to be completely broken up, as they will melt when cooked. It will look like cake batter.

3. Grease cupcake or cake tin (8×8 square pan). Pour batter in.

4. Bake the cake for 25-30 minutes, cupcakes for 15-20 minutes. Check if inside is cooked through by sticking a knife into cake – it should come out clean. The cake will be springy but firm on the center, just like a cake made with flour! YUM!

Beauties! No joke, they really look like this.

*The kale pesto was adapted from this recipe:

COOKING BONANZA, Part 1: Ode to my fellow amateur chefs…

What you need to start a Cooking Bonanza – friends, food, friends, wine, friends and…friends.

Two of my classmates, Annaka and Heather, started cooking together one night in Heather’s culinary heaven of a kitchen. She’s got every pot and pan, tool and spice…I can’t imagine the madness that ensued that night, later dubbed “Cooking Bonanza”. But it gave birth to a great idea and a really fun way to bond with classmates and friends.

The first time I attended, we were hanging over each others’ business at the cutting boards, stove, sink and counter tops. Heather has a wonderful kitchen, major open floor plan, so there is plenty of room to work. But we were all working together at the same time on multiple dishes (we are talking 1-3 dishes per person). It turned out to be great; a charming and familiar way to work with “too many cooks in the kitchen.” It made us comfortable with each other and willing to throw ideas around, and help each other when a dish was failing a bit (my Tom Kha gai sucked at first – ah the wonders of simmering). Annaka is the true chef; she knows how flavors work well together and how to take ANYTHING she has lying around in her kitchen (or yours) and turn it into a perfect dish. Hey Top Chef! You have your next contestant right here. Heather is very particular with quality of ingredients, keeping us all in check on the best of whatever kind of ingredient we are working with, which is what we are all passionate about. Plus she tells amazing stories about ninja personal trainers. That one is a Heather original. I also got to meet Mama of the Year (in my book), Karen. She is so chill, hilarious and nurturing, and brings baby Phillip with her wherever she goes. God bless her; she always remembers to pack the good stuff…chocolate, that is. The past two Bonanza’s, she has brought the makings for dessert.

Heather, Annaka and Karen

The menu for February’s Cooking Bonanza was a smorgasbord of yumminess. We thought of doing a Thai theme (I think it was?) and then just brought whatever was in our pantries, and whatever we felt like cooking that night. I wanted to make a spicy toasted walnut and apple salad, with lime vinaigrette, and tried to improvise, but it came out a little flat. I also brought the making for Tom Kha Gai, a traditional Thai coconut soup (SO yummy, with tomatoes, bok choi, lemongrass, etc.). We had to cook it down a bit, and I didn’t strain it a I should have, but I think the leftovers came out fine. THE BEST dishes were the prawns and white beans in a simple tomato sauce, Annaka’s ridonkulous cream of mushroom soup (non dairy, with sweet potatoes and other goodies blended in there), brown rice with fresh herbs, this baked spiced eggplant with a tangy almond sauce (one of my favorite tastes), and broccolini with olive oil and garlic. SO yummy. AND…Karen made chocolate pudding with tofu (melt chocolate, add cocoa powder, blend) with fresh strawberries. I ate WAY too much of that stuff. And I must admit I was a proponent of adding more chocolate than was probably necessary. After having not eaten chocolate for a couple of years a while back, I remember why I was addicted.

Apple salad and roasted eggplant strips with almond sauce

Sauteed broccolini with garlic

“Cream” of mushroom soup. SO savory.

Prawns, white beans and the rice

Prawns in perfectly simple tomato sauce

Rice with fresh herbs

My plate – ready to dig in and enjoy our hard work! What a pretty plate.

And finally, dessert. I had more than my share. : )

We all ascended on Heather’s apartment around 6:30, and started to eat around 9pm. It was fantastic and got me excited for the next…pictures of the FOOD below. No recipes are provided herewith…even though some of use used recipes, things changes A LOT throughout the evening with the dishes. This post is meant to motivate and inspire you to IMPROVISE, after seeing some of these dishes! Stay tuned for Part II of COOKING BONANZA, to be posted right after this with easy and scrumptious recipes from the March Bonanza!