Goat Cheese and Pomegranate

21 Oct

Don’t you love fall? The crispness in the air, the magical light in sunsets and sunrises, Halloween and…plump pomegranates! I’ve been experimenting with pomegranate seeds and goat cheese, and came up with this beautiful appetizer. The best combination so far was with Capricho de Cabra (a fresh goat cheese from Spain, similar to the French chevre). The version in the photo was set over roasted sweet potato chips and sprinkled with mustard seeds. Pretty yummy and nutritious, but I must say I enjoyed more when I did it the first time, over gluten free crackers and sprinkled with poppy seeds. And please, make sure you save the pomegranate rind and dry it for later – it makes wonderful tea, rich with antioxidant properties and also known as a home remedy for nausea and coughing.


Coconut Turmeric Rice with Goji Berries and Cilantro

18 Oct

Came up with this last night trying to cook something to bring to Feast of Words.

2 tablespooon coconut oil

1 onion grated

1 chopped garlic clove






1 cup washed jasmine rice (but next time I’m trying it with basmati, got too clumpy)

1 cup goji berries

chopped cilantro

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil, when they are golden add the spices and cook the spices until they make a paste. Add the rice and stir it until rice is all covered with yellow paste. Add water to cook rice and when rice is almost cooked add berries and stir. Add chopped cilantro to the mix only when is about to be served. Note to self: next time I might add coconut flakes.

Catching Red Herring

19 Jan


She doesn’t recognize me. I tap ever so lightly at the foggy window glass hoping that only she, and not the others, will hear me. But Rori is too drunk in lust to notice me. Her silky, shiny red hair is disheveled. She has bruises all over her so-white arms. I see some henna tattoos, too, over the tops of her hands and feet. The little bustier she is wearing, made out of some kind of copper thread adorned with studs and pearls, sparkles in the dim light. She twists her body in a rhythmic manner, I’m not sure if led by delight or pain. Could be both. A translucent fabric covers her navel; some bloody scars mar her naked bottom. Grime covers the bedsheets and pillows. Though she is looking in my direction as I stare at her, she doesn’t see me.
Standing outside in the damp moss that covers this part of the ground, buried deep in the thicker side of these woods, I am barefoot as I always am when I find myself here. Tonight is unusually cold. A gush of wind lifts my hair, making me shiver as it strikes a sweaty spot on my neck. I rub my arms slowly, afraid that my shivering will attract unwanted attention.
She closes her eyes slowly, opens her mouth, and starts drooling. Afraid of letting her go and still hopeful of some—any—communication, I reluctantly move my eyes away from her face and down to her feet. Now I see a hairy, dark, masculine arm tickling her legs with a huge peacock’s feather, moving up and down them, slowly and teasingly. He stops at her navel and strokes lightly around it. Ecstatic, she tries to grab the feather with no success. The dirty sheet slides and I can see why: he has handcuffed her wrists to the bed frame.
Yet I still feel that there is no true will in her body rhythm; I can tell at a glance that, like a puppet, she is not in charge here. But not long ago, I watched similar scenes in which she fought the strings of the puppeteer. Has she given up? I’m afraid that she’s even started to enjoy it. I feel powerless, and my spine tingles with a sense of urgency and failure. I’m running out of time.

Chapter One
San Francisco, California
Two years ago, when I started feeling the call of the land, I would never have imagined that following my gut would lead me to such mess. My hands wanted to touch dirt so badly that when I was enduring my nine-to-five job at a web technology company, I would spend my breaks sticking my fingers inside the soil of the potted plants around the office. I wonder if that’s why my preppy, Ivy-League-educated manager so willingly granted my request for my own cubicle even though our oppressive open-office policy didn’t allow any privacy even to the CEO. When he caught me poking the soil of the plants on the patio where employees usually went to smoke, he was in utter shock.
“Oh, come on,” I responded. “It beats cigarettes. And it’s free!”
Since he already thought that I was a nut job anyway, I didn’t care. But after that, every time I came over to his desk for meetings and touched his keyboard, he would spray Lysol over it after I left. Now who’s the nut job? Of course, my coworkers were sure that I was headed to the loony bin when I started saying that I wanted to quit my high-salary, hot tech job in San Francisco to apply for a degree in agricultural and environmental sciences at UC Davis and then raise chickens in Petaluma. “Now, you’re definitely out of your mind,” they would say. But, to me, it felt like the only way to stay sane.
“But, Carmela, farming is the lowest-paying job ever. It’s so unprofitable that most of it has to be subsidized by the government!”
“And, besides, you’ll die of boredom. Nothing to do and nowhere to go for miles and miles.”
“And aren’t you scared? Cami, you will be isolated out there. It is a no man’s land!”
The efforts of my dotcomer friends to talk me out of it made me much more willing to make the jump. I even found an old, out-of-print farming manual called Five Acres and Independency at a used bookstore called Green Apple, which made me feel like my new enterprise was wholly feasible. Besides, every morning I would wake up, a burned out twenty-something with a coffee habit, running late, rushing for my double latte. Fridays were triple-shot days. If the lines at the Valencia Café were too long, I would daydream that I was still sleeping as I clutched my buy-ten, get-one-free card and inhaled the smell of freshly ground coffee. It would make me sigh and remember the childhood summers I spent on my rogue uncle’s farm in Hawaii, to where the whole family ran away from the scorching Brooklyn summers . My cousins and I would climb over mountains of coffee beans drying in the sun. We gathered sticks so my mom could start the fire in the woodstove, rubbed garlic on our ankles and shins to ward off snakes, and ran downhill to the garden to pick lettuce, fresh caper blossoms, and mustard greens for salad.
My Italian grandmother taught me how to make a cup out of the huge taro leaves that grew like weeds around their tiny, spring-water source, which dripped constantly and made the roots growing around it especially tasty.
Grandma would connect the two upper pointy bits of the heart-shaped leaves, making a wide cone that she used to fetch the spring water. Wherever the water touched the velvety surface, the green would turn to shiny silver. The native farm caretaker taught her this trick. Land people don’t need to share culture or language to understand the way of the plants.
All my ancestors had been farmers in Italy until they moved to the United States of the Promised Land —and never bothered planting again—apart from some sour grapes that my grandpa grew out of his Brooklyn backyard.  I When I agreed to rent a room at Aunt Lilly’s so I could help her afford to pay her astronomical Bay Area mortgage, I hadn’t anticipated not having a backyard, and now I sorely missed Grandpa’s. At Aunt Lilly’s condo, I could see from my bedroom window the neighbor’s little plot of land, especially his fig tree heavy with fruit, so close and yet so far away. Since moving to the West Coast, I had felt a deep yearning, a higher call, pulling me into it.
“It’s not about the money; it’s about the lifestyle,” I told [my coworkers?]. “Think how much healthier and calmer I’ll be.”
“Have you thought about the ticks?” one responded.
“And the mosquitoes?” added another.
“And the freaks that could be your neighbors?”
“Or having no neighbors within a ten-mile radius?”
“What about country music? You’ve never liked it! Ever!”
“Your glamorous city outfits will stay in the closet, and you’ll probably get fat out of boredom.”
“And are you going to simply quit your career in technology all of a sudden so you can go into a totally unfamiliar terrain?”
Nothing anyone said would convince me against it.
“Maybe technology is the foreign land for human beings. You know what? After all those years in high-tech, all I got was chronic carpal tunnel syndrome and a stiff neck. The glamour is all but gone for me!”
But for one thing my friends were right: I could not just shift gears so fast, so I decided to test the waters. I started volunteering once a week at Hayes Valley Farm, a permaculture oriented, community run urban food garden at the site of the old freeway on-ramp that had to be demolished after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Developing agricultural ecosystems in a sustainable, self-sufficient way seemed to be the way to save the world – and my life. All my 9 to 5 days were spent in anticipation, looking forward to the weekend and its promise of rakes, shovels, buckets, mulch, trimming and catching up with the sprouts’ progress in the nursery. One extremely cold Easter Sunday, a bunch of us volunteers were planting fruit trees and our fingers froze so hard that we all had to take breaks and dip our hands in the warm, heat generating compost. Up to my elbow in worms-filled-dirt and decomposing organic garbage, that was how I met Josh, a sun-tanned Australian surfer with bleached hair and a flannel shirt missing a button or two who had just returned from summer in New Zealand.
“Yeah, I just spent the whole summer there for virtually free, working on some organic farms part time for room and board, and in the weekends I went surfing all over the coast.”
After washing up, Josh and I went for a coffee. He was a sort of wanderer farmer, a nomad with his feet planted firmly on the ground, if such thing could exist. His life plan for the next twelve years was to travel the world farming around in order to learn the tools of the trade and find the perfect spot to buy a bit of land and lay down roots. He had been in farms in Australia, Hawaii, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, the French Provence, Spain, Netherlands and Italy. That last spot made me skip a beat.
“Il Bel Paese! I dream of going there. My grandparents were Italian, I so wanted to connect back with my roots, I feel like if I ever manage to spend some time there, I might be able to find the missing piece of my soul puzzle.”
“You should go, definitely. You know, the world is much bigger than your cubicle.”
“My mother is against it. I brought the idea up a couple of times, she won’t budge.”
“Well, you are past the age to need to ask permission to your mother to go places, aren’t you?”
That was when I realized that I was able to open up to him more than I could to anyone else before. And also when I first noticed he had freckles on his nose. I am a sucker for freckles.
Josh made me smile a lot. For him, it was all so easy, a matter of packing up and leaving. He lived so simply, cooking a meal out of fresh local vegetables was his idea of a big night – just add his enthusiasm and you are better off than in the best of Paris. Whenever he was living in a big city, be it San Francisco, New York or Dubai, Josh worked as a temp sous chef. He was a great cook, and always broke when it came to cash, so our dates revolved around buying groceries, coming home and whipping up great meals with happy endings.
“Carmela, my sweet caramel…”
He made even my dated, old-school immigrant name sound cool.
He learned to cook in his travels, and often times he did not know the name of a spice or herb in English. He would go to the bulk section in Rainbow Grocery and smell the powders and dried plants and remember where and how they were used and come up with ideas for dinner, starting in the spices section. After smelling and deciding, we would go to the vegetable area, where the rest of the menu was picked according to freshness, colors and textures.
We started volunteering with the California Slow Food group as well and I got into the I’m-a-foodie-and-the-kitchen-is-my-refuge movement. Me, the geek who once could spend whole weeks just gulping burritos in front of laptops, coding away without even moving my eyes away from the screen to check it there were bugs in my food or something. Now I was perusing farmer’s markets and bringing home Heirloom tomatoes and edible flowers. And losing weight at it, the less the merrier! Hanging out with him made me summon up the courage to take the first steps into exploring a world that until now I had only heard about. Besides spending summers in Hawaii and leaving Brooklyn to move to San Francisco in my own Internet Gold Rush, I had never been much around the planet. I joined the organic farm volunteer network online and started looking for places where I could stay.
My first idea was to visit the region my ancestors came from, inland Campania. But it was hard to find farms there. I asked Josh for help.
“But the South, Cami? Why? I’m not sure… you should try Tuscany, or Emilia Romagna. People in the South, they’re big dreamers, and can make all this fantastic plans, but when it comes to turning it into reality, they never really make it. And it’s so poor and backwards. If I were you I would’nt go there. I went to Sicily once, and… I dunno. It’s beautiful, but a bit dangerous. It’s just my two cents.”
“But I want to connect with my roots, and that’s where my ancestors came from.”
“And they left for a reason, right?”
“Yes, they were poor farmers; with twelve kids, they had a hard time feeding them all. That is why my nonno and his brother left all his family behind and moved to Brooklyn.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I am trying to tell you. The South of Italy is a place people run away from, not move to. Apart from the seashore, the countryside is rather inhospitable.”
“Not according to my nonno, he was rather fond of it. Always telling stories and complaining the grapes they grew in Brooklyn out of the shoots he brought in his jacket pocket never tasted the same as back in his land. Sour as hell, but he still insisted in making his own wine in the basement.”
“Ok, but he never came back to the land, did he?”
Josh and I stopped talking about Campania for a while. We subscribed to the notion that it takes two to tango, so we both started avoiding the subject entirely. Meanwhile, I had to convince my boss to let me take some time off in order to travel and volunteer, and I had no idea how. I had been giving him some hints in that direction, suggesting I was due for a sabbatical and he ignored me blatantly.
Frustration built up, along with the caffeine abuse. I always did what I’ve wanted, ever since I first felt the power to say no to authority. I wasn’t sure exactly when was the first time I felt it; if it was after winning the global hacking contest right after my Sweet Sixteen party or a couple of years later, just before High School graduation. With honors. Or when I made an origami mobile out of the university acceptance letters; the MIT one was the centerpiece. Mama was shocked:
“Ma cara mia, how come you don’t want to go to college? The smartest girl in the family, the genius of Brooklyn, ma como?”
She had to mention that stupid newspaper headline. Kids were laughing at me until now. Even after they were all in their twenties. “Mom, I just want to live life a little. See how it is. C’mon, I could teach Computer Science at MIT if I wanted to!”
“You better apply for a Minor in Modesty as well… ”
“Mama, please, let me accept the job offer in San Francisco. Aunt Lilly said I could totally stay in her house.”
“Hippie aunt Lilly? I might as well send you to NYU with your own penthouse in the city. What kind of care she can take of you?”
A lot actually. Vacations in San Francisco with Tata Lilly had always been my most cherished ones, only loosing out to the ones in uncle Tony’s farm in Hawaii. I’d never dared reveal it to mama, but I loathed pasta, could not stand pizza or lasagna, and that was all mom cooked. I begged for more polenta and risotto, mom would complain it was too much work. Tata Lilly, on the other hand, was one of those rare gluten intolerant Italians, and her cooking was full of beans and lentil dahls she learned to make in India while she was becoming a yoga guru. Brown rice and fresh vegetables, that is all you need to survive, she would say. I was not ready to give up on my prosciutto, but I did enjoy being taken care of by Lilly. Lilly who would say Cami sounded like the name of a Hindu goddess. She always made everything look better. But moving in with Lilly was almost living by myself – she was always traveling, always teaching all over the planet.
“You know she is my sweet loving sister, but she is not reliable. And you are still a child.”
“No, I am not. Kids my age are being given guns and sent to war right now. And San Francisco has so many restaurants, I am sure not going to starve. Not with this good salary they are offering me.”
Mother sighed.
“If only your father was still alive, you wouldn’t walk all over me like that. My only child. Going away from home this young.”
Mama agreed since Tata needed help with her house payments and I needed out of my childhood home. “I know Americans send her children out as early as they can, but we don’t need to! Go with your Tata, but don’t forget to write, ok? One email a day and two phone calls a week, that’s all that I ask for.”
In the first year or so, I felt like a superstar. Not even nineteen yet, earning a pretty good salary in a hot technology company many people with PhDs would apply to work for and not even get sneezed at. Cruising the city like I owned it. It all soon became old, though. Right after I turned twenty-one, things started turning sour. The boss decided to exploit me more, making me work down to the bones, and with aunt Lilly always gone to give her yoga retreats, I was left to my own devices. What usually meant the taco truck and the pizza the office ordered every day. I was so tired by the end of the day that I would just go home and eat a bowl of cereal, almost never having time to find company to go into a restaurant for a proper meal. Keeping friendships is a lot of work, and people here were always probing me: what are you going to do? What are your plans? No college? You are never going to get anywhere without a degree. How long do you think your hacker extraordinaire status will last? Farming? You are nuts.
Hunger leads to action, and that was probably what triggered the call of the land. Besides sticking my fingers into the office’s potted plants, I had another dark little secret: I had taken to eating handfuls of dirt. I would go to a park, or snick into a friend’s backyard, and fill my mouth with the stuff. Feeling its earthy, mineral rich flavor going down my throat was a relief. Once I almost got caught. “I might be lacking in some kind of nutrient”, I decided. A check up did not turn up anything, the healthiest blood the doctor had ever seen, in spite of the Carpal Tunnel and my ever-diminished desire to come into the office. Only after I started working at the Hayes Valley Farm, and specially after meeting Josh, the strange compulsion faded away. Giving way to another impulse: hit the road.

P.S.: If you like what you’ve read so far and would like to help me get this published, please visit Catching Red Herring’s Kickstarter page and pledge!

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