Sunday, March 27, 2011

Early Signs of Spring

Words by Greg
Photos by Greg and Trina

Springtime has slipped upon us. Short days of winter are gone, equal days of sunlight and dark have passed, and now the sunshine lasts longer than the night. But, so far, barely.

It's a somewhat yo-yo season here, where warm dry days are followed by chilly moist nights. Where sunshine is followed by grey gloom. Where blossoms break forth in splendor and then frost comes back to nip at the early starters.

Only the most optimistic (or foolhardy) plants in town are rushing forward. Our usual "last frost" is in mid-May. Chances are slim that the bright white froth of blooming apricot trees will successfully run the gauntlet of coming weather and make it into fruiting season.

In the wilder world that surrounds town, most of the native plants know that patience is a virtue. Some, by virtue, instead, of warm south-facing slopes, or tiny micro-climates, have rushed the spring and are sending out blossoms, hoping, perhaps, to finish their business quickly before another frost spell.

Our own explorations of the early signs of spring are gathered here in photos. Please enjoy this further interruption of our Arizona photos, which I hope we will still eventually finish.

Local rides have ranged from dry, to moist and tacky, to turn-back-now-it's-muddy. Spoiled by the warm days, we've found it tough to get out on the grey days.

Plants like this seem to stay dormant and red, even during cool periods.

Some of the flowers we've seen are dried blossoms from last season.

This pea-sized flower was the first wild blossom we saw locally this year. Though I don't think the "blossom" of a paintbrush is technically a true flower.

One of the first flowers along the trail.

Rivers are rising.

insects are waking up and getting to work.

We're not at all sure what these become when they grow up.

Our friend Mary being chased by a ball of lint.

Trina being chased by bundles of energy.

This bright spot arrived in the garden.

Cheerful and underappreciated flowers. Trina did not approve of this photo.

From the garden, an over-anxious apricot.

Our first fresh garden produce for the season has been green onions from our self-restarting onion patch. They aren't harmed by a little frost.

Broccoli raab babies, still being babied indoors.

These tiny blossoms are widespread and prevalent this year, both around town and in the "wild". Not sure what they are, so we'll smile and call them wildflowers. (And not "weeds".)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Almond Crusted Gâteau Basque

Recipe and photos:Trina

The Basque region is on the border between Spain and France, and while the Basque are their own culture with their own language and culinary traditions, there are nevertheless some obvious culinary influences from both Spain and France. In this case, gâteau is the French word for cake, and this gâteau incorporates the quintessential rich pastry cream used in so many decadent, indulgent French pastries.

The recipe here is my experimental version of this traditional recipe. For the purposes of greater flavor, love of nuts, continued experimentation with nut crusts, and because a few of our dining companions are trying to avoid gluten, I made the gâteau with an almond crust. And, adhering to our policy of trying-not-to-waste-anything I added a (probably unnecessary) cherry syrup, using the juice drained from the cherries, to the already decadent scene. (And fed the egg whites to the dogs.)

2 15 oz. cans pitted cherries, drained (reserve juice for cherry syrup!)
brandy -- enough to cover the cherries in a shallow dish; I let mine soak in the brandy for a couple of days in the fridge.

Pastry Cream
1/4 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract or 1/2 teaspoon brandy – I used some of the brandy the cherries had been soaking in.

Whisk the sugar with the egg yolks until pale. Add the flour and cornstarch and whisk until smooth. Heat the milk just until it starts to show signs of coming to a boil. Gradually add 1/2 of the hot milk to the sugar-yolk mixture, whisking vigorously to prevent the eggs from scrambling.

Pour this mixture back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and boils. Take off the heat and stir in the butter. Add the vanilla extract and almond extract or rum. Pour into a bowl and cool slightly. Press a piece of plastic wrap on the surface and refrigerate until chilled and firm. While pastry cream is chilling, make the crust.

Almond crust
2 1/2 cups raw, whole almonds
1 cup confectioner's sugar
6 TBSP chilled butter, cut into chunks
zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
drizzle of half-n-half

Whiz almonds in food processor until fine. (That's almond flour!)

Remove ½ cup and reserve for topping. Add sugar to almond flour that remains in food processor; add butter and zest; pulse briefly until blended. With processor on, add vanilla and drizzle just enough half-n-half to get the dough to form into a ball. Turn dough out onto the chopping block. Scrape food processor bowl clean; work little bits of dough into the main pastry ball.

This is not the kind of crust you can roll out and handle.

Instead of the usual process of rolling it out and lifting it into the tart pan, simply press the pastry directly into the buttered tart pan using your fingertips and the heel of your palm.

Pull the sides up and press smooth.

Drain cherries from brandy, saving the now cherried brandy* to add to the cherry juice you saved initially.

Fill almond crust with cherries; top with chilled pastry cream.

Spread pastry cream and press down into cherries a little bit.

Sprinkle ½ cup almond flour on top, tilting pan slightly and tapping as necessary to spread almonds thinly, entirely covering the pastry cream filling.

Bake at 325 for 45 minutes. Let tart cool completely on wire rack before cutting.

Cherry syrup
reserved cherry juice and cherried brandy* (should be about 1 cup)
2 TBSP brandy
1½ tsp cornstarch

Bring mixture just to boiling over medium heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until it thickens.

Drizzle syrup over slices of Gâteau Basque. Yum!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dinka's in da House, Yo!

Text and photos: Trina

We pause now for a brief intermission in the string of AZ posts. More are forthcoming, but in the meantime, life back at home goes on as usual. Dinka has been visiting regularly these days and despite her utterly sweet demeanor and apparent daintiness, it turns out the girl can hold her own in a wrestle mania match.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

AZ: La Milagrosa Incident

Words by Greg
Photos by Greg and Trina

We woke under a grey sky, but the clouds quickly fled and warm sunshine glistened on the broken bottle glass and on droplets of rain that clung to the colorful plastic casings of spent shotgun shells. There were gunshots in the distance and it looked like we had a brilliant day ahead of us.

The ice melted off the dog's water bowl as we sat in the sunshine and gradually melted out of our wool hats and down coats. By noon we were in shorts and t-shirts, camp was packed, and we were ready to ride.

The dogs had made muddy messes of themselves the evening before, digging and romping as we'd set up the tent. But they hadn't gotten any real exercise and now leapt all over us as we got ready and prepped our bikes. Since there seemed to be a lot of irresponsible gunfire in the vicinity and since Sprocket looks a lot like a wild fox, we dressed him up in his safety vest.

We charged off on a rough 4-wheel drive road that wasn't actually the right road. After figuring that out and after a short bushwhack through the pointy and scratchy vegetation, we found the right road and we were on our way to the AZ trailhead. The segment of AZ trail was, well, nice. It rolled smoothly along, through scrubby dry grassland and we rolled with it. There were a few sandy spots and an occasional rocky moment. But overall, it was just "nice" and nothing about it was all that interesting or exciting. The best thing about the trail was that it took us further and further away from the Reddington Pass Road, all the trash, all the gunfire, and all the lovely people.

Our route T-ed into another trail, and a short way up a valley we stopped near a water tank where we ate snacks and snoozed in the sunshine by a trickle of water that wound through the rocks. A lovely spot that included small pool with a heart-shaped raft of algae. When we'd arrived, it had seemed like midday. But somehow, the snacks and naps lasted long enough that it felt very much like afternoon. Maybe even late afternoon. No problem. All we had to do was nip back down the valley and turn off, back the way we'd come to our truck.


If we nipped back down the valley and didn't turn off, we'd be on La Milagrosa trail, a wonderful, long, narrow, rough, challenging ribbon of singletrack that wove downward along a rocky, cactus-covered ridge, all the way to the flat plate of the Tucson plain below. I'd ridden the trail a year-and-a-half ago with friends so I knew it was the kind of trail Trina and I like. Trina thought that it sounded good. Especially when I explained that she and the dogs could just wait at the bottom while I rode back up and got the truck. No problem!

Soon we were bouncing and grinning and bucking and leaping our way down the trail. The dogs were thrilled to be running, and also played a long game of keep-away with a hairy piece of something dead they found along the way. Saguaro cactus soon surrounded us and the day slipped from afternoon to evening before we rolled into and out of a canyon, and then down the last piece of ridge to the end of the trail.

Yay! What fun! Whoo hoo! That was totally worth it!

Except that we were still a very long way away from the truck. And I wasn't sure how to get from where we were to the road that would take me back to the truck. And there wasn't really anywhere for Trina and the dogs to wait. And the sun was getting uncomfortably close to the horizon. And Zeek was about done running for the day.

We flagged down a car and asked how we would get to the Reddinigton Pass Road. "Oh man, you're a long way from there." the man said, his eyes bugging out a little. But he told us the way. No problem. Just a bunch of miles. To even get to the right road. Okay.

We needed to find a better place for Trina to wait. We were in a thinly spread residential area where it didn't feel "dangerous" or "unfriendly" so much as highly sterile and unwelcoming. There wasn't really anywhere to just "be" for awhile. So we all headed toward the pass together, rolling along on the giant grid of Tucson streets with our tired little JRT loaded into Trina's backpack, and with Sprocket still pulling at his leash. We stopped a woman runner and asked if there was a cafe or something nearby. The nearest business was 5 miles in the wrong direction. But wait! There was a country club/golf course on our way. Excellent!

Paved miles in golden light. Enough miles that even the nearly indefatigable Sprocket needed to stop and rest for a few minutes. We continued and turned a corner onto the proper road and soon pulled into the country club. There on a piece of lawn, I left my girlfriend and the dogs.

I turned back onto the road and pedaled away fast, shadows and doubts stretched out before me. How the heck long was this going to take me? How much daylight was left? Was the road as steep and rough as I remembered it from the day before? Would the people shooting guns alongside the road give me any trouble? Would I be able to find the turnoff to camp before dark? After dark? Would the truck still be there, would it be full of bullet holes, or would all the wheels have been stolen? If I did make it and the truck was still there, would I be able to find the country club again? Would Trina still be there? Would she have left me a note if she'd gotten kicked out or had to go somewhere else? Would I ever find her again?

Meanwhile, Trina was having a few doubts herself. She realized that she hadn't given me the key to the truck. What if the hide-a-key had broken off it's hiding place? What if I got mugged or shot? How long would she have to wait? What if she had to spend the night? How would she stay warm? Would the dogs be okay? Where else could she go and how would she get there? How would she find me? What if she never saw me again?

The pavement ended and I stopped to gulp down a few figs from my pack. Then started up the rough dirt road, pacing myself, but riding as fast as I dared. Behind me the sun set. Ahead of me a set of switchbacks twisted their way up the steep mountainside. I made a quick stop and took a photo of saguaros silhouetted by the sunset.

Then I saw a black pick-up truck coming up the pass behind me. Hmm. I waited, and as the truck came even with me, I smiled and called out to the driver through the open window "Hey! You have any room in the back?" A thick, young latino guy with a fresh red scar running down his face yelled back "No! All full!" Well, okay. I kept smiling as the truck passed and I glanced over into the empty bed. I started riding again. The truck drove on, but then stopped. A young woman climbed out of the passenger window and pointed into the truck bed. "You mean you want to ride back there?"

"Sure!" I said. The driver poked his head out again and smiled, his scar gleaming in the twilight. "Climb in! You tired?"

"Yeheah!" I lied. I climbed in with my bike and off we went. Through the darkly tinted back window I caught the shadows of maybe six people in the king cab. The fashionably small wheels of the truck were effective at amplifying the washboard in the road. The thickly sweet smell of burning rope drifted back to me. Trash flew out of the windows to the side of the road, and some of it might have been empty beer cans or drained bottles of something stronger. Occasionally the driver would gun the engine and spew gravel in a burst of machismo that had me calculating the escape jump I would have to make if he let the truck slip off the steep edge of the road.

Still, I was going faster than I could ride. And not using much energy. Plenty of time to worry about whether they were going to let me out when I was where I needed to be. Or if they were just going to take me to a lonely place and relieve me of my valuables. With or without shooting me first.

We got up the major switchbacks, past the three main shooting areas to where the road crested and leveled off. I wasn't sure how much further it was to my side road and with the light fading quickly from the sky, I didn't want to get out too early. But either the driving was getting more erratic, or my nerves were less able to deal with it. I called out that this was the spot. The truck stopped. I dropped my bike and myself out. Thanked them. They drove off. No problem.

There in the cool air on the dim road, the brightest stars were just beginning to be visible. I put on a jersey with some sleeves, put my small headlamp on my helmet and rode on. How much further? Long minutes, gravel crunching under my tires, and more hills than I'd remembered. Then to one side of the road, a water tank with a tree growing out of it. I'd seen that just before we'd turned off on our camp road in the truck.

I took the next turn. Which was not the correct turn. Turned back to the main road, and a little further yet, found the proper turn-off. A short way in a sandy wash, over some mounded stone, and I could see the white topper of our truck, gleaming under the lingering glow of the wide Arizona sky. Once I saw that the wheels were still on it and everything looked fine, I let out a sigh of relief. I found the key, loaded the bike, and raced back down the pass at a speed that Trina would never have allowed if she'd have been in the truck. (Unless she'd been driving herself.)

I turned into the dark country club lane and there were my three loved ones, shivering in the grass, hungry and happy to see me.