Boozy Blackberry Kumquat Jam

It’s been…an embarrassingly long time since I posted an actual recipe here, but the jam I concocted the other night was absolutely too good not to share immediately.

Boozy Blackberry Kumquat Jam

I bought a flat of amazingly juicy blackberries at the market a few weeks ago, and the first thing I made with them (after I managed to stop eating them straight out of the basket) was blackberry liqueur (3 parts blackberries, 2 parts vodka, 1 part brandy). This may even surpass damson plum gin as my favorite infused booze.

A week or so later, I strained out the berries and tossed them with more fresh blackberries (3 pounds of fruit total) and a cup of sugar. Smashed up the berries a bit, tried not to eat it all right then with a spoon, tossed the bowl in the fridge for another day or two. And then last night, as I was getting ready to turn it into boozy blackberry jam, remembered a bag of whole candied kumquats in my cupboard. Lightbulb.

Blackberry and orange is a relatively common combination, but the slight bitterness of the kumquats (and their teeny tiny cuteness) turned out to be a perfect match with the juicy, rich blackberries. I can’t wait to use this on a cheese plate, or, frankly, just on a spoon.

Boozy Blackberry Kumquat Jam
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Busy Summer and Exciting Changes to Come

Hi everyone–as  you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s been pretty quiet on the blog the past several months, though the quiet here belies the busy-ness of my life lately, between gardening, cookbook club-ing, paella-teaching, chef-camping–oh, and quitting my job to follow my passion.

Paella Class

Yep, in July I left my job in communications at Northwestern University, where I worked for 10 years, and next week will start a new job managing the community cooking school for Peterson Garden Project. This is about as close as it gets to a dream job–working with people who are as passionate as I am about teaching the value of good food and building relationships and community around a shared meal. It makes my soul happy.

And, with timing that seems fated, I spent last weekend immersed in the amazing-ness that is Chef Camp with the Spence Farm Foundation learning not just the how’s of sustainable farming and food production, but–more important to me–the why’s. I’m still somewhat overwhelmed and trying to process all that I learned in two very short (and very long) days from incredible teachers, including my fellow campers, but to say I’m inspired is putting it mildly.

I don’t think I would be at this point–feeling so full of purpose and having found a productive outlet for my passion–if I hadn’t started this blog four years ago. And I wouldn’t have kept at it without the support from you, for which all I can say is a most heartfelt thank you.

The blog isn’t going anywhere, though! I still have a summer’s-worth of stuff I want to share, but in the meantime here are a few of the highlights in pictures.

Tomato-to-be

August 10 garden harvest

Paella class with 25 student plus 7 volunteers

Brunch Cookbook Club

Spence Farm

Harvesting squash blossoms for Rick Bayless

Making breakfast

Spence Farm cows

Cooking the Books – Green City Market Cookbook

A quick note for Chicago folks: paella class is back! July 26 (next Tuesday) at the Peterson Garden Project, sign up here. It was great fun last summer, I hope you can join me!

Of the many (many, many) things I love about not-winter, aka May through October, in Chicago, finally getting fresh produce and kitchen inspiration from the farmers market is just about at the top of my list, not far behind dinner on my porch, lunch on the beach, snacks in the park….basically anything food+outdoors.

Pink drinks

That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to try the Green City Market Cookbook for June’s cookbook club meeting. I bought this book from one of Chicago’s most iconic farmers markets when it first came out, but honestly only made a dish or two before it fell off my radar and sat, sadly neglected, on my bookshelf. The other reason I was excited to pick this book? Perfect excuse for a field trip.

Green City Market Cookbook

I could write a whole post just about Chicago-area farmer’s markets, but I’ll (attempt to) summarize my two favorites:

Farmers market 3

Green City Market has some of the best of everything Chicago has to offer when it comes to food, from the produce (obviously) and the food vendors (yes always to Nomad Pizza, Cookies and Carnitas, Co-op Hot Sauce, and Italian cider doughnuts, please) to the location smack in the middle of Lincoln Park.

It’s my favorite market to take out-of-town guests and show off the food of my adopted city, or to bring friends for some shopping and brunch. Oh, and I go to Green City Market for the cheese (Prairie Fruits Farms is my favorite).

Farmers market 2
Radishes within reach

That said, nearly every Saturday morning from spring through fall, I head north to the downtown Evanston farmer’s market to stock my fridge.

Herbs

Not quite as picturesque as Green City, but it has everything I want: a favorite fruit stand (which I will forever be grateful to for introducing me to damson plums), a handful of go-to vegetable vendors (my 10-for-$1 zucchini/pepper/eggplant/cucumber guy in mid-summer, Theresa’s and Henry’s for some of the best vegetable plants–and best vegetables–anywhere); a honey guy, a favorite bread lady. amazing empanadas for when I need a shopping snack… It also feels less packed than the city market with fewer double-wide strollers and no dogs–and you can’t beat free parking.

Farmers market 1

So, a week before our dinner, a few of us got up bright and early for a trip to the Green City Market (and, a few weeks later, the Evanston market) for inspiration and…let’s call it “research.”

This is what a cookbook club does when they go to the farmers market

After wandering the market, picking up a few provisions, we all left sufficiently inspired (and stuffed). With the fifteen dishes that we made, we ended up with a nearly vegetarian (two dishes with fish and one killer brisket) feast:

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May (and a little of June) in the Garden

Somehow summer always sneaks up on me. Between a flurry of “oh hey spring!” weekend fun and busy-ness and my day job, I looked at the calendar and suddenly it was almost mid-June.

But with a mostly rainy May, I lucked into a few perfect weekends (and some extra helping hands, aka my own master gardener) to get everything planted between my garden plot and pots on my porch. The plants certainly enjoyed all the rain, and I appreciated not having to babysit them while they were getting established.

I think this year is off to a pretty good start, don’t you? (May 11 vs June 5)

5/11
6/5

So far I planted from seeds:

  • Beans–I’m trying two new-to-me yellow and green bush bean varieties this year. I want to make my dad’s three bean salad this summer!
  • Peas–I’m excited to try these Dwarf Grey Sugar Snap Peas since they supposedly don’t require trellising.
  • RadishesFrench Breakfast (my most successful from-seed vegetable for the past three years), Early Scarlet Globe (new to me this year), Cincinnati Market, Plum Purple, and hoping I can get a watermelon radish to take this year!
  • Cucumbers–I found a perfect recipe for cornichon pickles last year, and this year I want to attempt pickles from my own Parisian pickling cucumbers. They’ve sprouted, which is farther than I got with seeds last year. So far, so good!
  • Carrots–With Parisian Market carrots, there’s obviously a French theme in my garden this year. But I’m excited to try these since they don’t need much depth, and they’re just so stinking cute.
  • Nasturtium–I’ve never planted these before, but I like the idea of adding the flowers to salads and having a little color in my garden.

5/31
5/31
5/31

For seedlings, I planted:

  • Broccoli–I love the swirls and spikes of Romanesco broccoli, so I figured I’d give it a shot in the garden. This is my first brassica-type plant, and while the bunnies took a nibble from some of the leaves, they don’t seem to have done too much damage.
  • Celery–Celery is actually among the few things I will pick out of a dish, but some good marketing sold me on trying Pink Plume celery. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good sales pitch (which, incidentally, came down to “It doesn’t taste like regular celery!”).
  • Peppers–Oh boy. I may be getting nearly as bad with peppers as I am with tomatoes. I’ve got:
    • Maule’s Red Hot–I loved these for drying and using as crushed red pepper last year.
    • Corno di Toro Rossi–A bigger sweet/hot pepper.
    • Mellow Star Shisito–Just for something different.
    • Chile Pulla–I can’t find anything about growing these fresh, but the dried version is common in cochinita pibil, a Yucatan version of pulled pork, which has become my new grilling obsession.
    • Fireball–I loved these last year and they produced like crazy, even in a pot on my porch. They’re like a sweeter version of a jalapeno, and I’m excited to try pickling some this year.
    • Espelette–I told you there was a French theme this year. I got some of this special dried chile powder in France last year and am excited to try growing the peppers themselves.
    • Padron–I think I planted one of these, but I honestly can’t remember. I hope I did, they’d be so fun to have with my next batch of paella.

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5/21
5/21

And then there are the tomatoes. I…might have a bit of an over-buying problem that will turn into an over-eating problem come July/August/September. But, tomatoes! I somehow lost a bunch of the plant labels, so I’m not 100% sure what all I planted, I just know I have 11 (or is it 12?) kinds. To the best of my recollection:

  • Cherry/grape tomatoes: Black cherry, Honeydew (yellow cherry), and an as-yet-to-be-determined variety of red cherry tomato
  • Small/medium tomatoes
    • Japanese Black Trifele–I grew this last year and liked it enough to try it again.
    • Another small red tomato, another one that I forgot the variety.
  • Slicing tomatoes
    • Pineapple–I only got a few of these last year, but they were so gorgeous and delicious that I wanted to try again (and be better about fertilizing them this time).
    • Wherokowhai–One of two dwarf tomatoes I’m trying out this year that are specifically bred to grow well in small spaces but produce full-sized tomatoes. So far they’re growing like crazy!!
    • Fred’s Tie Dyed Tomato–…And the other dwarf tomato.
    • Purple Cherokee–I traded sesame noodle salad for this beautiful homegrown tomato plant at the Chicago Food Swap!
    • Green Cherokee–I got this as a freebie from the Chicago Botanic Garden. How could I say no to a free tomato plant?!

5/31
5/27
5/27

As for herbs, I have: chives (I cut them back and took home two pounds of chive–and they grew 6 inches of new chives in five days), garlic chives, cilantro, lemon verbena, oregano, bay, parsley, basil, winter savory, nepitella, spearmint, tarragon, rosemary, and borage. And apparently some dill seed got into my garden, so I guess I’m growing dill, too. Maybe I’ll try some dill pickles (to give away–I am decidedly not a fan of dill).

5/30
5/21

Easiest Tomato Sauce

I feel like stock trader yelling “Buy, buy, buy!!!”, but it’s the tail end of tomato season and I just figured out the best-tasting, easiest sauce I’ve ever made. And good thing, too, after I indulged my “but it’s on sale!” tendencies and bought 63 pounds of tomatoes (in my defense, I thought it was only 40, but nope, 63).

End of tomato season

Since I first tried canning tomatoes based on the National Center for Home Food Preservation process, I’ve been trying to find ways to streamline things. This year was no exception and resulted in the easiest, least messy, most hands-off method yet. So easy that I honestly don’t know why I’d ever do it any other way ever again. Here’s how it works:

Wash tomatoes, quarter, roast, peel, roast some more

Congratulations, you’re done. Once the tomatoes are cooked, you can put them through a food mill or a blender, leave them in chunks, freeze or can them or eat them with a spoon.

Start to finish

The basic difference between this and the NCHFP method, which most every canning or preservation book or website use: oven versus stovetop. And that makes all the difference. I’m talking about one pan, almost no mess, and minimal waste versus multiple simmering pots and pans, bowls of ice water, a mess across my counter, piles of tomato scraps, and hours of splattering and stirring.

Quartered and cored

Yes, I sound a little like that infomercial with the guy who can’t eat a bowl of popcorn and hold a soda at the same time, but I swear, this really is so much easier. This method eliminates the three things I hated most about the traditional method of processing tomatoes:

  • The boiling water/ice water peeling step. It inevitably makes a mess (they never peel easily for me and coring and cutting that little X in whole tomatoes is a pain), takes more time and attention, and means more stuff to clean. I hate cleaning.
  • Less watery sauce in less time. Getting 20 pounds of tomatoes to a good sauce consistency takes a solid half a day on my stove and makes a righteous mess. See above re. cleaning.
  • Constantly being at the stove. Granted, the oven method isn’t totally hands-off, but it requires much less babysitting than a simmering pot. Heck, when I made these last night I put them in the oven then read a book. OMG.

Easy peel

This also tasted better than any other tomato sauce I’ve made. Combining the large surface area of a roasting pan with dry heat of the oven (if you have a convection oven, so much the better) means the water in the tomatoes evaporates faster and more effectively than in a pot simmering on a stove. And that means much more concentrated tomato flavor in less time than it would take on a stove. Plus, especially if you use a large sheet pan like the dark one above, the sugars start to caramelize around the edges as the water cooks off, adding incredible depth, richness, and sweetness to the sauce.

The best, easiest tomato sauce

I’ve already eaten this on pasta, as a base for baked eggs, and finished off that little bowl standing at the counter with a spoon. I cant wait to use this in chili, to make tomato soup with grilled cheese, spaghetti and meatballs….Do you think it would be totally crazy if I bought more tomatoes this weekend?

Easy Tomato Sauce
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Peach-Plum Pie + Extra Flaky Pie Crust

Out of all the season transitions, summer-to-fall seems to bring the most incongruous pairings at the market: peaches and pumpkins, corn and apples, blueberries and plums. But when I have a bunch of end-of-season peaches languishing in the fridge from the market two weeks ago and come home with a 30-pound bag of plums because, well, I’m me, I need to figure something out PDQ. It’s a good thing peaches and plums share common ground with all the good fall spices–cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, brandy–in one of my favorite pies.

I love these colors
Peach-Plum pie

Any discussion of pie also has to include my new favorite pie crust. If there was a graph to measure the likelihood of pie based on “How badly I want pie” and “How much energy I want to spend” (…I had a whole witty thing here but it started to involve terms like “inverse proportionality” and “negative slope” and then I was looking for graph paper and made a literal pie chart in Excel and started debating if it was more appropriate as a bell curve and getting high school math class flashbacks. Let’s just pretend this paragraph was as infinitely clever as it was in my head. But I’m still including the pie chart.)

Pie chart

In any case, sometimes I’m just too lazy to get out eggs and vinegar and baking soda and ice and pastry cutter and a bowl, and then I don’t have pie (and for those who say “food processor!”, I hate cleaning the thing more than I like using it). And no pie on account of laziness is sad. This recipe is flour, butter, salt, water, a pastry board, and my hands and feels like markedly less effort. Less effort required=more pie.

Butter, lard, flour, water, salt
Butter, lard, flour
Flattened fats

The method is somewhere between traditional pie dough (cutting the butter into the flour until it’s in small bits that turn into small layers in the dough when it’s rolled out; also known as a short dough) and puff pastry dough (many, many thin layers of butter are created through many, many rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling; a.k.a. laminated dough).

Fraisage/short dough
Crumbles of butter, flour, and lard

In this process, big chunks of butter get mashed into the flour with your hand, creating large flakes (a variation on a technique called fraisage–my French lesson for the day) followed by a few rounds of rolling/folding to create more flaky layers. It’s even easy to work with as an all-butter crust, which has always given me trouble because the butter gets soft so quickly. I still like using a bit of lard in place of some of the butter for flavor, though.

Nice big butter piece
Laminating

The beauty of this method is that it’s nearly impossible to overwork, rolls out beautifully, and creates the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever had, a delicious, edible lovechild of traditional pie crust and puff pastry. Which is to say, it’s really, really good.

As for the filling, it’s is based on one of my favorites from a few years ago. Peaches were such an obvious addition that I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner. As much as they’re a sign of summer, peaches are also the perfect fruit to transition to fall as they work so well with all the flavors associated with the season: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, brown sugar, brandy. This recipe has them all, plus streusel. Everything is better with streusel.

This smells so good
Simmering
Sweet, spiced chutney to thicken the pie

For whatever reason, peaches and plums aren’t a fruit combination I see much, but it’s a shame as they work so well together. It’s definitely a pairing I’ll be using more often.

Pretty fall colors
This is going to be good
Peach-plum pie

(And as for that 30 pounds of plums? There’s been plum gin (of course), plum-vanilla vodka, Chinese plum sauce, pickled plums, plum jam, plum cake (more on that next week), and, of course, pie.)

Extra Flaky Pie Crust and Peach-Plum Pie Continue reading

Damson Plum Gin

It’s easy to like ripe, red strawberries, peaches that leave your hands and face sticky with juice, watermelon that tastes like a bite of pure summer. They don’t need anything but a sunny day for perfection. The fun ones for me, though, are the fruits that are unassuming, that don’t look or taste like much at first; the ones that need a little coaxing, maybe a bit of fuss, to really shine. But, oh, when they do, their flavor is enough to rival the most perfect of strawberries. And, in this case, they have the added bonus of a cocktail at the end.

Ready for sipping

Damson plums, like my other favorite stonefruit, sour cherries, fall into the “unassuming” category. Barely bigger than a large cherry with dusty deep blueish-purple skin, Damsons have hardly any flavor when eaten raw. Pop one in your mouth and all you’ll taste is sour, but give them some time and attention and you’ll be rewarded with the most plum-y tasting plum you’ve ever had, rich with flavor and deliciously, mouth-wateringly tart. It doesn’t hurt that their skins impart the most gorgeous color to anything you make with them.

Plums, sugar, gin

I mentioned this recipe off-hand last fall, but it was so good it really deserved its own post. It was a happy discovery to learn that Damson plums are related to sloes (as in sloe gin), which is as simple as combining gin, sugar, and fruit and waiting a few months. For the longest time, gin was not something I was a fan of. Someone once described it to me as “like drinking a pine tree;” considering one of the essential elements in gin is juniper berries, that’s not too far off. Happily, this woodsy flavor is actually a perfect complement to the plums.

Pretty purple infusion

What I’ve discovered about gin, too, is how widely the flavors can vary beyond the juniper base. Hendricks is known for flavors of rose and cucumber; Few, a local Chicago brand, has vanilla and citrus; I’m intrigued by the mix of herbs and spices in St. George’s “botanivore” gin. And honestly, this is good even if you only shell out for the low-shelf stuff.

Handy place to keep your recipe

Since the flavors of gin vary so widely, this is a fun recipe to make a few small batches and compare them come winter. Last year I particularly liked the rose flavor of Hendricks with the plum, and I have another two gins I’m giving a try this year. When it’s ready right around holiday time, this makes a gorgeous and delicious cocktail when you mix a bit of the gin with sparkling wine. Make more than you think you’ll need now, it’ll disappear faster than you realize.

Damson plum gin

Now if anyone has some ideas for what to do with a whole bunch of gin-soaked plums, I’m all ears!

Damson Plum Gin
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Slow-smoked ribs

Wasn’t the 4th of July, like, a week ago? This summer seems to have blown by faster than any in recent memory, though my globe-trotting lately hasn’t helped. Regardless, with a few more days of near-90’s in the forecast, I will happily use the long weekend ahead as one last excuse for cramming every last bit of summer in, including one last batch of ribs on the grill.

Pretty pink smoke ring

As much as I’ve used my grill over the past two summers, these ribs marked the first time I’ve ever actually slow-smoked meat and I’ve been kicking myself for taking so long to do it. I have my favorite ribs I’ve made for years, since before I even had any outdoor space to grill them, but these…these are my new go-to when I want to show off.

What you'll need

Here’s the thing: Chicago has so many great restaurants, high-end to dive, and a lot that are known for good barbecue, but, to be honest, I’ve never had any barbecue that’s blown me away. Some has been good, but more often than not it’s been a game of too much chew or not enough, drenched in sauce or none at all, tastes like a burnt log or not even smoked.

These ribs are what I’ve been craving, the ones Goldilocks would have picked as “just right” if ribs had been the main course instead of a bowl of porridge. They have just enough pull without being fall-off-the-bone (a quality that’s completely over-rated when it comes to ribs, by the way), a good amount of flavor from the smoke and the rub but you can still actually tell that you’re eating pork, a little sweet and spice and the best little burnt bits from a final brush sauce and a quick blast of heat from a hot grill.

Yummy
Rub bark, much better than bark on a tree

For better or worse, when the end of summer is in sight I inevitably feel like I’m running out of time–time for beach lounging, porch sitting, eating all the peaches and corn and berries and tomatoes, cooking (and grilling) all my summer favorites, time just to be in the sun. I know it would be better to focus on the things I managed to do in the past four months–planted and grew a garden; taught a class; traveled to Barcelona, Paris, London, Boston, Cleveland, New York; stocked my freezer, cupboard, and liquor cabinet.

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone

That said, I’m writing this sitting in the sun on my porch, a pot of tomato sauce with herbs from my garden simmering on my stove (at least some of which is destined for the pizza dough that’s headed for the grill shortly), a big bowl of fresh gazpacho ready for lunch, peaches and plums and fresh corn and tomatoes and watermelon all ready for eating, and a batch of those ribs on the very near horizon. When September starts like this, I really can’t complain.

Slow-Smoked Ribs
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August Garden Update

An hour left to August, so how about a very last-minute update on how my garden did this month?

Things started small…

Starting small in August

Peas were pulled, tomatoes and tomatillos started hitting their stride.

August garden
2015-08-07 17.52.30
Tomato plot

I got my first hot pepper!

My first red pepper!

Those few little tomatoes turned into lots of goodies to harvest mid-month.

Tomato season
August harvest

I’ve spotted this guy hanging out on my tomatoes twice. I think he makes a good little mascot.

A garden friend

As for what’s coming up next, a few weeks ago I planted some end-of-season radishes, sorrel, broccoli raab, and lettuce, though only the radishes seem to have taken (I planted the rest of the seeds today, so we’ll see how it goes). I also let a few things go to seed (some on purpose, some out of laziness); radish seed pods are the prettiest things and I’m excited if I my laziness means I don’t have to buy more seeds next spring!

Paella

You guys. I’m struggling to find the words. Tuesday’s class was the most tangible and immediate validation of my purpose for this blog, for nearly everything I do involving food: to give people the confidence to try something new in the kitchen, to show that cooking doesn’t have to be this big, intimidating, scary thing.

Digging in

At the beginning of the class I asked who had eaten paella–nearly everyone raised their hand. Who’s made paella? One, maybe two hands went up. But by the end, every one of the 24 people in the class (plus the amazing volunteers who cooked the “teacher’s” paella) could say yes, they’ve made (amazingly delicious!) paella. And they could all do it again, too!

Watching each group proudly unveil the beautiful meals they created at the end of class, the impressed comments from their classmates–I wanted to give them all a hug and say “Look! You made that!” Everyone sitting together to share conversation and food (and wine, there were some amazing sangrias at the table) had me mentally shouting “YES. This is what’s it’s about.” (I mostly restrained myself on the shouting and hugging; I only had one sangria–a much-appreciated glass beautifully prepared and with a pretty little lemon twist by one of the groups.)

Beautiful!
Saying hi to my first class
Lindsay arranging the final dishes

There were so many moments like that during the class, but this might have topped them all–one of the students came up to me at the end and told me she was really excited to try this at home. Then she said, “Honestly, I’ve had a paella pan sitting in the back of my closet for years and I’ve never used it. Now I have a reason!” Again I had to restrain myself from becoming a crazy hugging person, but I did tell her, “Yes!! You can totally do this!!”

Happy students
Ready to get started

And the comments on the feedback forms–I want to frame them, and not for my own ego. The best comments said that this intimidating dish was actually easy, that they tried or learned something new. Two of my favorite moments from the class were showing everyone a whole cuttlefish and walking around to let people smell smoked paprika, and it’s so rewarding to know that the class got something out of those moments too.

And I learned something in preparing for this class! I’ve never cooked cuttlefish before this week, but I love the stuff now (it’s like calamari, but thicker so less chance it will overcook). I added some to a salad last night and it was amazing.

Talking

For me, personally, there was a moment too. As anxious as I was in the days leading up to the class, as soon as I got to the kitchen and started setting up–it’s cliché, but I felt my nerves melt away. I know my way around a kitchen and a cutting board, I know how to cook.

Beyond the actual cooking portion of it, the years of practice I’ve had running web presentations at my day job were also surprisingly helpful. The speaking came easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew how to handle questions and figure out if it bore repeating to the whole group; I could troubleshoot my slightly burned garlic or pans that were heating unevenly without panicking. There are definitely things that will improve with practice (like actually remembering I have a pan on the stove before the garlic burns), but for a first time, it couldn’t have possibly gone any better.

Paul, one of the excellent volunteers I had helping me

I also cannot say enough good things about the volunteers who did so much of the prep for the class (roasting the red peppers to steaming the seafood to cutting the cuttlefish and all the meat), who pretty much cooked “my” paella when I was busy teaching, and washed all the dishes. They (and Lindsay and Becky from PGP, who also get credit for most of the pictures) made the class happen without me feeling frantic. If you have a kitchen skill you want to share, Peterson Garden Project is the place to do it.

Making sangria for the volunteers

I’m already brainstorming more class ideas (and I want to do this one again too!) and can’t wait to share more with all of you.

Salud!

Paella Continue reading