Returning to Fresno: Finding Summer Begun

Fresnopostcard Fresno is a beautiful place to fly into at night; I’ve remarked upon this to seatmates on a few descending planes, colleagues and co-workers, and all agree: the unerringly level valley, illuminated with a sprinkling of variously-toned white lights – pale yellow, blue, green, orange – in every direction as far as the eye can see, is absolutely stunning.

Friday, however, I was flying in during the late afternoon on one of the first warm days of the year, with the familiar pall of brown haze hanging over everything. Most of the time, Fresno looks like you should open it in Photoshop and do some color correction.

The daytime landscape, as you come toward the airport from the southern approach, is partially redeemed by the view of countless trees in neat orchard blocks. Many of them are stone fruit trees; you can spot them when they’re in full leaf by their doughnut appearance, the centers pruned out to let more light into the tree’s canopy.

At any rate, the spell is broken when you get out of the plane. I don’t know how to describe it, but Fresno has a smell – hot dust, even on what passes for a cold day here, is the closest I can come to it. Though I love my work in this place, I’m always a little sorry I left the fresh air of wherever I came from.

While I was gone this week, investigating consumer preferences, Fresno decided to have the first warm day of the summer. The wet spring is finally starting to recede; though many farmers have lost a lot of crops, we’re about to start into gonzo strawberry season.

I had already used my car air conditioner on April 20, and we had to crank the house one up on Friday. We’ve been trying to use the blinds-down-windows-open-in-the-morning-and-evening tactic – it works fairly well, as this is really a desert climate and the temperature drops precipitously once the sun goes down – but once we start getting up to those 90+ degree days, and it’ll be soon, we’ll have to start air conditioning in earnest.

My cooking is going to change now.

Seasonality isn’t just an idle whim here – cold food goes a long way toward making the very long, very hot summer bearable. Sitting on the couch on Friday, watching the cats sprawled out asleep, as long as they could make themselves in their full-body sweaters, I started thinking about big salads, chilled soups, fruit, and, in general, anything that doesn’t involve the oven.

So vinaigrettes are on my mind, massive piles of produce lightly dressed, things marinated, macerated, chilled. There’s always one day in the summer here where I can’t bear the idea of turning on even a light switch, much less a burner, in the kitchen, and I think That whole raw food thing makes a lot of sense. Time for some Mexican Gazpacho. It won’t be long.

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Chimp’s ‘Dude,You Better Use That’ Squash Soup

Squash_1 My husband Chimp (that’s his longstanding ‘net name) asked if he could guest blog this week while I’m traveling for business. Why not?  Due to my CFS, he’s cooked more dinners in the past two years than I have, though I’m still way ahead on the lifetime total.  So here comes Chimp’s improvised butternut squash soup recipe from last week.

The nice thing about his improvised recipes is that he sometimes does something that would never have occurred to me that turns out wonderfully. Like this – I’ve added traditional warm spices and hot seasonings to squash soup in the past, but never five-spice powder; I just never thought of it. This will come out very thick – if you’d like it soupier, just add water.  So here’s Chimp.

***

With your regular host on the road this week, I’m stepping in to fill your left-field vegetarian needs.  No, I am not an actual chimp and no, I have not been hurling anything that I shouldn’t have been hurling before heading into the kitchen.  Now let’s get to it. . .

Imagine you were blissfully married to someone, but that someone really loved butternut squash.  That might not be so bad for some of us, but for others, squash makes the mouth go limp as does the body when bear-hugged as a child by distant relatives who smell of mothballs and calamine lotion.  This calls for a plan.

The nice thing about butternut squash is that initial prep is pretty easy.  (1) Turn oven on to 400 and insert squash.  (2) Wait for length of two Simpsons reruns.  (3) Remove from oven.  It also keeps just fine till the next day, so one could put this in the oven while making something else one night, stow it in the fridge overnight and have the makings of soup the next night.  Just remember to use it in a timely fashion, as the name would suggest.

Oil for the pan

2 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped

1 tsp. ginger, very finely chopped

1 tsp. Chinese Five Spice

2 red peppers, diced

3 carrots, diced

1 butternut squash, roasted about an hour and minus its skin and seeds

1/2 cup water or broth

salt and black pepper to taste (and I do mean a lot of both)

Heat the oil and the garlic and ginger for about a minute, stirring regularly.  Toss the Five Spice and lots of black pepper in, then add the peppers and carrots.  Sauté until tender.

Add the squash and the water or broth and let simmer for 10 minutes. Put the contents through a food processor or blender and return them to the pot.  Add salt and let simmer another 10 minutes or so.

Serve in bowl to grateful spouse after long day at work.

What makes this is that the Five Spice and the black pepper are strong enough to give the squash a bit more bite without turning the soup into an excuse for too much hot stuff.  (Some of us have been accused of this on other occasions.)  The peppers seem to add just enough sweetness to wake the whole thing up without making it taste sugary. It worked for me.

Sloppy Mobys

Eh, the lighting needs work in that, but the important part of the lighting task is accomplished: you can see what it is that’s being photographed. My Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Internal Regulation System says: “That’s good enough. Sit down and eat now.”

A few years ago now – yikes, it was probably 1999, back when I was working for Whole Foods, because it was when Play was first out – I made a hot lentil sauté on hamburger buns, inspired by the idea of Sloppy Joes, which I never liked as a kid, but the idea of that kid-ish-inspired food seemed like fun. We called them Sloppy Mobys, because they were vegan, and Moby was very much the uber-vegan symbol at the time. This isn’t meant to strongly resemble actual Sloppy Joes made of meat; it’s the idea I liked.

The idea came back to me recently, so we had something like that this past week, tucked into whole-wheat pita instead of on burger buns, because I couldn’t find any whole-wheat burger buns, and I am that insufferable whole-grain type.

I didn’t even eat most of this as sandwiches, either – after one dinner with it that way, the rest of it I added a little water to and ate as soup – and it was great.

Continue reading “Sloppy Mobys”

Red Pepper Sauce

I really like using vegetable-and-nut sauces. Things like this and the Sorites Paradox Pesto add tons of color and nutrition to a plate, and variety to a vegetarian diet. Plus, because there’s little chopping and prep work, they’re usually manageable for me to assemble and contribute to dinner unless my energy is really, really poor.

This can be used to top fresh vegetables (it’s especially nice on green ones, as it’s a bit like a shortcut romesco sauce, except with red peppers instead of tomatoes), liven up a salad dressing or toss with pasta.

Continue reading “Red Pepper Sauce”

Today’s Agriculture Moment: Crop Damage

I was sitting at my desk about three weeks ago during one of the uncharacteristically rainy days of our uncharacteristic spring, and the soft sound of the rain on the flat roof of our office began to turn to a hard, snapping noise. I looked up, as if I would see anything besides the dropped ceiling marked with the concentric stains of a winter’s worth of leaks on the acoustic tile from the roof of the old former grocery warehouse building we occupy.

Hail?

Within seconds, the tapping pings had grown to a furious roar, and everyone in the office was out of their chairs and on a dead run to the front of the building. Being in a former warehouse, there are windows only in the lobby, so we all converge there whenever there is Weather.

And indeed, it was hailing, marble-sized and shooter marble-sized rounded chunks of ice, pounding down on the pavement in a deafening cacophony, covering the road with a solid blanket of white, something you’ll see only with hail in central California, as there’s no snow to speak of in the Valley. Leaves were flying off the Bradford pear trees in the bank parking lot across the street. We were all thinking the same thing.

The fruit.

There are a lot of things that grow in Fresno County that hail is bad for; pretty much any fruit that grows on a tree can’t be said to benefit from it, plus almonds. Hail can wholesale knock fruit off a tree. If the fruit is hit but not dislodged, a small scratch on a tiny piece of fruit early on becomes a big scar on a fully-grown piece of fruit much later, and there’s not a whole lot to be done about it until the scars are big enough to see.

It only hailed for a few minutes, thank goodness, but this spring has been a real pummeling from Mother Nature for Fresno County. Yesterday, the Bee led with a story by Dennis Pollock, who covers agriculture, that Fresno and Tulare counties have experienced an estimated $34 million in crop damage. $21 million of that was Fresno County.

(The other story above the fold was about three pit bulls attacking a herd of goats, resulting in 88 of them having to be destroyed. Yikes.)

Anyway, it might rain a little bit tonight and tomorrow, which nobody is happy about, but after that it looks like we’ll finally start to get into at least some of Fresno’s famous blazing-to-the-point-of-frightening sunshine, which should help everything get dried out and on its way, maybe a little later than usual, but on its way nonetheless.

So hold your horses, everybody (and guard your goats); the fruit’s coming.

Culinary Heartbreak: The Loss of Echo

Rabbit5 I don’t take the Bee at home, so it wasn’t until today, when I picked up the Life section in the breakroom at work that I saw the terrible, terrible news.

Echo is closing.

Echo is my favorite restaurant in town, and one of my favorites of all time. We can’t afford to go there all the time, but we’ve never regretted any of the money we’ve spent. On our first visit, recounted here, chef Tim Woods made a soup with the two of us in mind. That, needless to say, was the first time that had ever happened to us.

I am not the only one who feels this way; Russ Parsons of the L.A. Times wrote a long and wonderful tribute to the place in September 2004, before the restaurant moved from the three funky blocks of the Tower District to the Piazza de Fiore Center at Champlain and Perrin in the northern part of the city, a move that was rumored, I heard at the time, to be the brainchild of the restaurant’s investors.

I have to say, I never liked the idea of them moving. I hated to see them leave the Tower and join the northward migration/Orange Countification of Fresno. I liked their old space more; I liked being in the Tower and seeing the traffic on the street and sidewalk outside; liked parking on the street myself and walking down the block to the place, loved the murals on the walls and the open kitchen in the back.

As soon as I put the paper down I picked up the phone to make a reservation. I am not ashamed to say that I started to cry. We will be there the night before the last night. We will order everything we can. We will be truly sorry to see the place go.

Edit: lots of emotion and some fur flying in the Fresno Famous fracas on this subject…

Today’s Agriculture Moment: A Tangerine

Okay, I have to get back to work momentarily here – I’m working on an analysis this evening – but wanted to share today’s Agriculture Moment.

After a meeting today, I was chatting with a grower. We had been talking about raisins and started talking about tangerines, which are rapidly gaining acreage in the San Joaquin Valley. I hadn’t known it until today, but it turns out the guy I was talking to has 20 acres of tangerines.

“Speaking of raisins,” I said, “I had the most incredible tangerine this week – it had a beautiful pink-tinged pith, a really floral smell and a dried fruit note in its flavor that was sort of raisin-like. It was a Murcott, I think – is that right?”

“Yep, that’s right. That’s a really nice one. Unfortunately, it’ll make seeds if there’s other citrus anywhere near it.”

“This one did have a couple seeds. I found them at Whole Foods – they were labeled as being from the Schellenbergs’.”

“Oh yeah, Rick has some of those,” he nodded. He raised a hand, gesturing to the northwest. “They’re over behind the gym.”

Two blocks from our office, there is a gym.

Behind the gym’s parking lot, there is a chain-link fence.

On the other side of the chain-link fence, there is a citrus orchard.

That is where my snack was grown, though it had to travel to Fresno to be sold and then back to where it grew – in my lunchbag, in my car – before it got eaten.

Having grown up Not In California, I still usually think of the food I buy as coming from Somewhere Else, and am always momentarily surprised when I’m reminded that much of what I eat comes from Pretty Nearby or Right Smack Dab Down The Street.

The first year we lived here, I saw an orange sitting by the side of the road and thought to myself Who threw a perfectly good orange out the car window? What a waste. The next day I drove by again, saw the same orange, but looked up and realized Oh my goodness, it fell off that orange tree that’s growing right there by the side of the road!

Agriculture! Bizarre!