A Birthday Brunch at the Wildlife Area

Today was not unlike most Monday mornings. I awoke at 5am and began my morning routine finishing with a light breakfast around 7am. Now I was ready to start a very important deviation in my morning routine. Today I am baking an apple crisp to take to  a brunch at work. It is the Director’s birthday and and we want to do something special for this very special lady.

At most places of work a birthday brunch would mean gathering around in an office setting and sharing a variety of delicacies. Not where I work. It meant that we were headed out to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to do some bird watching, look at some of the newest research and restoration projects and of course, have our birthday brunch amongst a beautiful wetland setting with the birds singing and the sun shining down on us.

The Wildlife Area is a very special destination for all of us at Yolo Basin Foundation, but it is especially special to Robin, our Director. Robin was part of a handful of people that came together in 1989 to begin the conversation of restoring the wetlands of the Putah Creek Sinks located in the Yolo Bypass. As a result of these conversations  the Yolo Basin Foundation was founded in 1990 as a non-profit dedicated to the stewardship and appreciation of wetlands and wildlife through education and innovative partnerships. In 1997 the Wildlife Area opened to the public, the beginning a long-term partnership between the Yolo Basin Foundation and the California Depart of Fish and Game to provide public outreach and educational programs at the Bypass. The original area of preservation was 3,500 acres and that number has grown to over the years to over 16,000 acres. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to have her birthday celebration.

I have been thinking about how to make this crisp for days now. One member of our staff doesn’t eat foods containing gluten and another is allergic to walnuts. I want everyone to be able to enjoy the crisp so I combined ideas from a couple of recipes. I used Annie’s Apricot Crisp recipe to create the topping, but this time instead of using wheat or oat flour I used almond flour. Another potential problem was that some folks who are gluten intolerant don’t eat oats and I definitely wanted to include rolled oats in the topping so I checked to see why something that doesn’t have gluten in its makeup was on the avoid list. A Google search turned up http://www.glutenfreeoats.net/. Their reasons were: “The concern is that if oats are grown in a field that previously grew other gluten containing grains, some of those other gluten containing grains will naturally grow in the oat field the next year, which will then cause the oats harvested from that field to be contaminated. If a farmer uses the same equipment to process all his grains, that can also cause cross contamination. If the coop or transport company that brought the oats to the processor has stored and transported other grains, that can cause cross contamination. If the processor processes other gluten containing grains, there can be cross contamination.” Makes complete sense to me so I found some certified gluten free oats to use not wanting to take the chance of using cross contaminated oats. The second recipe was from Simply Recipes. It gave me the basic ingredient ideas for the apple part of the crisp; apples, lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar and cinnamon. I added some nutmeg and increased the cinnamon and vanilla amounts over what they recommended. After a half hour of peeling, slicing and mixing the apples with the lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar and spices, the mixture was poured into a 9 x 12-inch pan, then the topping with the almond flour, certified gluten free oats, chopped pecans and butter mixture was added. It looked great and if it hadn’t been a foggy morning with very little natural light coming in the kitchen windows I would have taken some nice pictures to show you. I really don’t like how food pictures turn out when you use flash. In my opinion the look is very unnatural and unappetizing and Annie is definitely not into unappetizing looking foods.

The crisp came out of the oven 45 minutes later, smelling wonderful as only apples drenched in sugar and cinnamon can and looking perfect. I wrapped it in a towel to keep it warm, loaded the car with my laptop and some serving utensils and headed off through the fog to work. The closer I got to work the sunnier it got which is unusual since there is always more fog in the rural areas and that’s where our office is, in a field surrounded by agriculture.  At work we loaded the food each of us had brought; bagels and cream cheese, just picked tangerines and freshly shelled walnuts, hot water for coffee, tea or cocoa, and Greek yogurt to use on the crisp.  Plates, silverware and hot cups were placed in a basket and loaded into the fifteen passenger van along with a loaded ice chest. Party supplies all loaded we all jumped in and headed two miles to the east to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area where we drove south into a closed area to view a project area and some recently restored wetlands.  It took us a while, every time we got started down the road one of us would see a bird or birds that we would have to stop and watch.  Sometimes it was to make an identification. I was sitting in the third set of seats from the front, warm crisp on my lap and the basket of the other goodies and a co-worker beside me. My views were through windows that do not open and have not been washed for who knows how long. It was not good viewing, with or without binoculars, and definitely not good at all for picture taking. Since I couldn’t take any pictures of the birds we saw I took this picture to show you my view of everyone else bird watching. I thought it was funny. There they sat with their binoculars all at attention, the part you can’t see or obviously hear is the discussion as to which bird it was that was spotted and where it is amongst the hundreds of other birds out on the water. Then there is the discussion by a few of them that are using the iBird app on their phones to research or justify identification. It was definitely entertaining and not atypical of birders, which all of us, with the exception of two are. Actually the app was great help since some of the female ducks are really hard to identify. We also used it to confirm some eared grebes that are not common to the area.

When we got to the southern part of the wildlife area we stopped and had our brunch. Since we didn’t stop in an area with a table we used the ice chest and the seat and step of the van to set up our feast. The crisp went quickly and this is all that was left after eight hungry women had finished with it. At one point this morning I had considered making a 9 x 9 pan, glad I didn’t. Yes I ate again. I had to see if the crisp tasted as good as it had smelled all morning. It was delicious if I do say so myself. Guess what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow morning. Love leftovers!

As we pulled to the top of the levee to leave the wildlife area we were given one more memorable moment, we spotted five river otter playing in the water just below us. As we sat watching their antics I couldn’t help wish that I could just stay and spend the rest of the day as carefree as the playing otters seemed.  That wish would have to wait; there was work to do back at the office. But I knew as we drove off that I would be back out to the Wildlife Area the next day, this time with a class of excited school children and we would continue the exploration of this wonderful area.

To see pictures of the wildlife area and some of it’s inhabitants click here.