Thoughts on Regional Autumn Experiences and Cooking Fall Delights!

Don’t you love this time of year? I do and I’m in love with fall this year. In the past few years, I’ve felt a little cheated in the fall. You see, our amazing NorCal weather generally lacks a bit in the autumn and winter departments…particularly as compared with my former home-cities of Cambridge, MA and Seattle, WA. I complained endlessly about the weather in both places, but there’s no denying New England fall colors! I do miss watching the rowers in the Head of the Charles Regatta, going apple picking and watching the leaves change from green, to auburn to flaming red. NorCal has nothing on that!

And Seattle’s Pike Place Market is a whole other level of apple delights. Walking through the market on a crisp fall day (the one time of year when it didn’t seem to rain EVERYday!) made me crave clam chowder and fresh salmon. They have so many varieties of apples to taste – it blew my mind. What was really interesting to me about Seattle’s food is how sophisticated it is. Given that Seattle is the “most educated” city in the USA, I suppose it makes sense that their food seems more intellectually evolved as well. Have you ever had, “balsamic strawberry ice cream”? You can find that seasonally at Molly Moon’s Ice Cream. How about potato-rosemary pizza? Also a seasonal item, available (via delivery only!) at Pagliacci’s Pizza. Generally, I found Seattle’s food to be inventive and creative and I LOVED that their sweets were generally less sweet. Maybe it was just having come from New England (or maybe I was just way behind food trends) but I found the flavors of sweet treats to be more dynamically expressed via the use of more salt and less sugar. In fact, I experienced my first salted caramel apple pie in Seattle and was forever changed by the experience.

That said, Northern California does not lack in the amazing food department and this year, our fall actually seems to have fallen…temperature wise. It’s very cool in the mornings and evenings and the afternoons have an essence of autumn that’s unmistakable. The leaves are changing in beautiful but slow ways. It’s race season, it’s pumpkin season, it’s apple season…what is not to love?!? I went for a beautiful run this morning along the Iron Horse Trail in Alamo. I felt so grateful to get to be out there breathing the fresh air and seeing the beautiful fall day. I don’t usually pause for photos but I took this one. That photo makes me want to find out what’s beyond the bend.

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So I’ve been baking and roasting a lot to indulge my love of this fall weather and the farmer’s market bounty. I’m generally in the mode of trying to bake “cleaner,” meaning that I’m trying to find good substitutes for fats, oils, sugar, etc. This is a really fun venture but it has produced some major fails. For example, my oatbran-pumpkin-chocolate chip bars were pretty weird (I’m just not a big coconut oil fan it turns out!). (I subbed Trader Joe’s oatbran for flour – that didn’t work out very well texture-wise either.)

I have also been roasting a lot! A new favorite is roasted heirloom cherry tomato and onion soup. I’ve been replacing the cream with pureed white beans and it is absolutely amazing! We’re having friends over for dinner tomorrow, one of whom is allergic to wheat and a host of other items (including lemons). I’ll be roasting a chicken with butternut, delicata and acorn squashes…along with some yummy onions. I’m going to try roasting the chicken with limes in the body instead of lemons. Wish me luck!

Last weekend, I wanted to bring a pie to our friends’ house for dinner. After a lengthy discussion and a stroll through the farmer’s market, my hubs and I decided it would be an apple pie. [Sadly, I’ve lost the recipe for the salted caramel apple pie (but you mind find it if you click around http://www.fourand20blackbirds.com, where I took the class to learn to make it!)] I used the good-old-fashioned Betty Crocker cookbook with a frozen Trader Joe’s crust. It was divine…but way too sweet! Next time, I’ll use the half the sugar and add some sea salt. This is why I love baking! I can test new flavors all the time and I’m learning what works. Let’s be honest, even a too-sweet apple pie is STILL AN APPLE PIE! Throw some vanilla ice cream on there and munch it down. Or, my favorite is homemade whipped cream…I whip heavy cream with the immersion blender and leave out the sugar. The cream picks up the sugar from the dessert and the texture is incredible.

Today I made Zucchini-Sweet Potato Muffins. My recipe is adapted from Savoring the Thyme - my changes are based on the ingredients I actually had on hand.

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Zucchini-Sweet Potato Muffins
Ingredients:
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
3 tablespoons Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Spice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 salt
2/3 cup agave nectar, light (I used dark)
3/4 cup sugar (I used “Sweet Tree’s” blonde coconut palm sugar because I’m out of brown sugar today)
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup applesauce, no sugar added
3 eggs
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup grated zucchini (I didn’t actually measure how much I put in. And I grated these and sweet potatoes in the food processor, which makes it much easier)
1 1/4 cup grated sweet potato
2 tablespoon ground flax seed
2 tablespoon chia seeds
1 cup chocolate chips
Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Spray muffin tin with baking spray.
3. Sift first six ingredients together in large bowl.
4. In a separate bowl, beat nectar, sugar, oil, applesauce, eggs and vanilla until combined.
5. Mix grated potato and zucchini into wet ingredients (after grating, I cut more as they were long strips)
6. Add dry ingredients to wet and fold to combine.
7. Fill muffin pan-makes about 15 muffins or just overfill one pan to make 12.
8. Add a few chocolate chips on top of each muffin.
9. Bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes (I made mini-muffins, which I baked for 14 minutes.)
8. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick and making sure it comes out clean
 
What are your favorite things about autumn? 
 
Do you have a favorite fall recipe? Share it with us!

Canvas & Cabernet…or biodynamic wines CAN get you hung over.

Last night, FFF had its first ever Art & Wine Festival. Well, we actually just drank wine while painting at the super fun Canvas & Cabernet art studio. It was really fun and a way to connect with friends that was totally new to me. 4 of the Lady-Crew and 1 of the Dude-Crew joined us to drink and paint.

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It’s a really cool concept and it works like this. You pay a fee for the evening’s class and all the materials required to create your painting are included. You buy whatever wine or beer you want from the bar.

We had a bottle of Benziger Cabernet. I liked it (maybe didn’t love it but I drank enough of it to be extra sure either way). It turns out that even biodynamically produced wines can leave you hung over. Go figure.

Last night’s class was Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I’m no art historian but this is a recognizable enough painting that even I knew what I was trying to achieve. 

Once the wine was flowing and the music was pumping, Julee (the Queen of Canvas & Cabernet) took the stage and gave us very simple step-by-step instructions on how to create our own Van Goghian masterpieces. Follow along at home if you’d like!

Step 1: Using the “big brush” fill the entire canvas with dark blue paint. Easy enough, right? Oh, and don’t forget the edges…if you like. It’s “artist’s choice” afterall so you also just paint a big smiley face and be finished for the night. Whatever the artist prefers.

Step 2: Paint some big black waves along the bottom 1/4 of the canvas (I went a little beyond the bottom 1/4 and wished I’d followed that direction more closely – I ended up with a LOT of black)

Step 3: Sweep the black paint down toward the base of the canvas.

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Step 4: Paint 2 big swirls from the left side of the canvas – toward the center. Again “artist’s choice” so go for it…using light blue paint.

Step 5: Highlight the tops of your waves with light blue paint.

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Steps 6-8: Add the stars in light yellow. The one on the far right is the largest. Add a “crescent” shape inside the largest one (just looked like a C on mine) and dot some orange inside the rest. Highlight all the last few items with random dashes of white (using the “baby brush”).

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Step 9: More dots highlighting the large elements. This time in light yellow, followed by orange. Baby brush.

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Step 10: Add a light blue moon above the second wave from the left. “Round brush.”

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Step 11: Add the “large dark figure, cypress tree or whatever that big dark thing is” on the left side of your waves. Mine started out looking like a hitch-hiking ghost.

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Steps 12-13: In my case, step 12 involved getting some personal instruction from Julee about the shape of the dark thing. She showed me how she normally forms that figure and I tried to follow. I also added a little light blue highlighting to make it less scary. Then we signed our paintings. I went with the classic dramatized T. I thought about adding “Yo!” but decided that wasn’t in the spirit of Van Gogh. Although, “Van Gogh YO!” sounds kinda fun, right?

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Definitely check out this very cool spot here in Walnut Creek. The staff was incredibly helpful, the gift shop is stocked with quirky cuteness and painting and drinking are really enjoyable things to do. Check, check, check!

 

The Six O’Clock Scramble

The Six O’Clock Scramble

We just added an awesome prize! Our grand prize winners will each get a one-year membership to the Six O’Clock Scramble. I’ve been using this service for years and it is truly the key to keeping healthy, delicious dinner on my family’s table. They provide the recipes, step by step instructions for the main and side dishes and a grocery list and I take it from there!

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