Category Archives: warning

Next, in Southern Coastal California

Last night I came awake to the sound of violent lashing rain coming in strong brief pulses. I lay and listened and considered all the work we had done last afternoon to put gullies into the orchard so that the runoff from up the road would settle deep into our heavy soil. Wondering if we had done enough.

The ground has felt like concrete, despite our continual adding of organics, our thick mulching and deep watering, so we are thirsty for rain in a way that feels more acute than it has ever been before. Consider this– we had none of our usual fall rains– even in a bad drought year we’ve always had a few inches in the fall. This year, we felt a sprinkling of drops but nothing measurable. The reservoirs were frighteningly bare, and the native vegetation, crisp.

Then, as the news has tracked, we had the Thomas Fire with all its tragic losses, and the heroic labors of firefighters. Such a dry land, that the fire often persisted in burning against the wind. How do you fight that? By hand, by shoveling dirt on every kindling patch, by the brutal courageous personal labor of good women and men on the front lines and extraordinary canny planning by the planners and strategists. We had a war here and our people rose to every call.

Now the rains came, late. Now they enact another price. The stripped land cannot hold when waterlogged on these steep slopes and in the canyons, and that’s why you read in today’s news of our massive landslides taking out yet more homes, killing people, and destroying roadways. I hear helicopters pulsing overhead as stranded, sometimes injured folk are air-lifted to safety, a few at a time.

The county sent out warnings, issued mandatory evacuation orders and voluntary evacuation warnings in different threatened zones. Many citizens last night chose to stay in place. Understandably sick of the disruption to their lives after weeks of fire evacuations, they didn’t want to leave yet again, especially if they lived in areas where a mere evacuation  warning had been issued, not an evacuation order. As I understand at this  time, these evacuation warning areas are where some fatalities took place last night.

For the record, I’m a chicken. Give me a voluntary evacuation warning, and I plan to be out of here. I think it’s fair saying that the county officials are no prophets, they can only estimate and guess how the natural disaster potential may be expressed, so I will err on the side of caution. Hey, even when we weren’t in the voluntary evacuation warning area for the Thomas Fire and it was still eight miles away from our place, I was packed to leave, the cat carriers were down, water bottles filled.

It’s worth thinking over what your personal limits and triggers are before the issue arrives. How would you feel?


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Filed under experiences, flood, natural history, warning, wildfire

Drying Fruit

fruit at market.jpg

When you are flooded with fresh ripe fruit in summer, what could be better than to dry the produce? (We aren’t much for jams and jellies in this household.) In drying you transform the food into a form that keeps better and takes far less space. However I have some tricks and warnings to suggest.

Harvest Maid makes a fine circular dehydrator for drying fruit, such as apricots and tomatoes. It’s notable how often I have seen unused machines priced ridiculously low in thrift stores. Rectangular and square dehydrators do not circulate the air as evenly so I far prefer this type.

I rarely use the higher temperature settings. Lower temperatures take longer but keep a better more complex flavor. I don’t use ascorbic acid or other preservatives because I care nothing about the color of the product, only the flavor. If you want to worry about the color, ascorbic acid simply adds another simple step tor processing fruit such as plums and apricots.

Apricot and plum season comes soon– my apricots are showing a touch of color today.. I use a knife to remove the plum pits before lightly flattening the halves between my fingers. Then I set them on drying racks that have been spritzed with an unflavored oil. The fruit pieces should be barely touching, cut side up. I dry these until the surface is dry enough to turn them face down to continue dessication until they reach a leather-like texture before packing them into zip-locs, pressing as much air out as possible and storing in my freezer. The feel of a piece should be flexible, not breaking at being bent. You can under-dry–the fruit should not be wet or squashy, but more like a prune, and I feel this makes a better product. With apricots I don’t bother to use a knife–I am always trying to do things faster. I tear apricots apart with my fingers, toss the pit out, flatten each half slightly between palm and fingers and set out on racks as I described with plums.

Dried plums, you say, isn’t that the same as a prune? No, not if you use a plum like a Santa Rosa. We take our dried fruit on our long driving trips. One of these dried Santa Rosas will wake up more than your taste buds– they are an explosion of sour and tannin with a little sweetness and even the illusion of a slight saltiness in your mouth. Santa Rosas dried are almost as good as caffeine to keep you alert upon the road. But like strong coffee, don’t take too many on an empty stomach or they might upset it.

These dry fruit are super substitutes for jam fillings in cookies– any apricot jam bar cookies, apple-raisin filling cookie or fig filled type, can be stuffed instead with these dried fruit gently simmered with some water until tender. You will then have a less sweet cookie that explodes with flavor. My one caution is that dried plums will need some honey to mellow their tannin-strong bite and acid. Taste while the simmered fruit are cooling, and modify to your preference before putting them into your cookies. I don’t think apricots need any sugar, treated this way.

Peaches? Never had luck drying them They come out hard and rather tasteless and I have no clever recipes for them that take advantage of their characteristics. Apples? Ditto. I suspect that if I were willing to take the time and try out various preservatives I could get around this harshness, but I’ve been too impatient to date.

For drying tomatoes, you wash then dry them on a very clean towel, core, quarter them, discard the seeds and jelly (or most of it) flatten and place on the drying racks. Lightly salt the pieces with kosher salt before drying them in the dehydrator until each is flexible like a raisin. If you do not salt, you may have a bacterial infection start in on the moist areas– a most unpleasant spoilage of your work. Once you get such a contamination the whole lot is only good for the trash.

Tomatoes are best done in later summer, so I would wait until then when the sugars are at a height. I always store the dry or semi-dry tomatoes in the freezer because they are prone to mold if there’s any moisture left in the pieces. DO NOT STORE IN OIL. Oil creates an anaerobic culture medium for the cruel and usually fatal delights of botulism. If you want a grisly tale of what happens when you ingest botulism, you can check on the government sites, or read Berton Rouche’s charming tale “Family Reunion”, (I have it in his volume entitled Annals of Epidemiology, a book that is a tremendously good read.)

If you want these frozen tomatoes to taste like the oil-packed form, simply saute the half-dried ones in some olive oil and herbs (herbes de Provence type mixes are fine) until warmed through, and use the same day either over pasta or on pizza. Remember they are already salted, so taste before you add any more salt. These have none of the preservative taste that commercial products can bear. I find them infinitely superior. I suspect one reason is that at home you can leave your tomatoes on the vine to full ripeness while commercial growers must harvest far earlier in the life cycle of the fruit.

Because I’m on the subject of drying fruit I will digress to autumn and talk a bit about persimmons. For drying persimmons you need the fat pointed kind– Hachiyas, which you carefully peel with a vegetable peeler or fine knife, needle a string through just under the stem and hang in any good drying place. Gently squeeze and massage them every day (I wear nitrile gloves) to even the drying process. When they are a consistent texture, a bit like leather, with a whitish ‘bloom’ of sugars on the surface, they are done.

If you use our kind, the Fuyus, you have to slice them thin and they will be like sweet potato chips, but thorny, even perhaps a little unpleasant. I have never liked them dried this way.




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Filed under blog, food, food processing, gardening, warning

Fireplace dangers

I read a news item in our So. Cal paper yesterday that made me sit up straight and sweat. Been there, survived that. Or rather, my family did. Thanks to my father, Fred.

I put this memory aside, believing that it was something that didn’t happen to other people — that rules and permitting processes had eliminated this kind of danger and the event in our own lives was out of date. But no, when our local paper reports the same type of problem in 2015, that in my case came close to making me the sole survivor of my immediate family back in 1985, it’s time to tell a story.

We bought an old house in New Haven Connecticut about thirty years ago. Built in the 1850’s it had been refurbished for yuppie appeal in the late 1960’s. A small narrow house, fitted in apparently by crowbar (less than four feet between its nearest neighbor on the East side), it was a working man’s home. Inspected, cleared for use.

First Christmas of our ownership, husband and myself went to Massachusetts where his parents lived, and left my family in the New Haven house. My parents recently come from Nigeria, my older sister and husband from Princeton, my younger sister from her school in upper New York State. They found our thin-walled old structure flimsy and full of drafts and happily used the first floor fireplace to heat the central rooms for all.

Very early morning of their third day, about 2:30 by my best guess, my father does his classic Fred thing. He smells something. He gets up and prowl the house, and he doesn’t like what he scents. Now let’s be honest. My father was always smelling something. We grew up with him smelling something. So my older sister rolls over with a groan when he pokes at her and says “Do you smell something? I think something’s burning.”

Her husband is no more interested in smelling something than she is.

Our father goes down to my younger sister. She is even less interested in smelling something, groggy in her bed, so he disturbs our mother, who mutters something like “Freddy, you always smell something.”

Back to my older sister who finally rouses enough to put her feet on the floor and yawning, stands up to indeed find that the air at standing level is thick and smoky. Choking.

Everyone is roused, the fire department called, arrives in flaring lights and sirens and finds that a central beam of the house is deeply engaged in smoldering. Five to fifteen minutes from the whole structure exploding into flames, is their best estimate. Five to fifteen minutes  away from gutted.

So my family was saved by Freddy’s nose. His inconvenient nose. And the source? The builder who renovated for the yuppies laid that ground floor hearth in quarter inch slate and mortar on plywood. Do you know how little heat it takes to crack mortar laid that thinly? An adventurous ember slips into that crack and smolders gently away, excavating a space that draws oxygen in, sufficient to the cause. The fire moves gently along, under the surface of that hearth of slates, moves along until it finds a well-aged beam. Settles in for the long burn.

Now a neighbor in 2015 in Southern California has just escaped immolation from the same kind of renovation. Check your hearths, my friends, check the rebuilds. Do be careful– I still love a fire in the fireplace but my house has a floor of cement these days, and I know the hearth is brick and tile over that deep cement. I checked. These are good days, when I know we don’t need Fred’s nose to save us. Make sure, please, that you don’t need Fred’s nose either.



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