California Rice

Snow geese over harvested rice field

When I drive to work in the morning I cross a three-mile bridge over a floodway. This floodway, or bypass, was created early in California’s history to carry water away from the Sacramento River during high flows and prevent the city of Sacramento from flooding and so far it has done its job. Within this floodway a wildlife area was created in 1997, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. It provides habitat to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that visit each winter as they travel the Pacific Flyway from Alaska and Canada down into California’s central valley. There are also rice fields alongside the wetland habitats within the bypass. They also provide food and shelter for scores of wildlife species. In fact, California ricelands provide habitat to 230 wildlife species, including more than 30 that have been designated as special status. Ricelands provide more than half of the food needed by wintering waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley.

Rice production also benefits Californians in a big way, it puts more than a billion dollars into our economy, it supports local communities and premium California rice is found in every piece of sushi made in America. So if you eat sushi, you’re eating rice grown right here in my back yard. So, how did rice get to be such an important crop? It certainly isn’t native to our area.

Like so many things in California you could say it all started when Sutter found gold in “them thar hills”. The California gold rush brought thousands of fortune hunters to California. Immigrants from all over the world came, the largest group were Chinese workers hired by the mines and the railroad. Rice was an important part of the Chinese diet and it had to be imported from China or Japan. European and Asian miners who didn’t fair well in their search for gold turned to their previous profession, farming. Some saw rice as a potential crop.

But early attempts to cultivate long grain rice failed time and time again. It wasn’t until 1908 that a USDA soil specialist discovered that a Japanese medium grain variety, Kiushu, was better suited to northern California’s climate and soil. The first successful crop was grown at the Belfour-Guthrie Ranch in the community of Biggs just after the discovery and by 1912 the rice industry was established. Today California’s rice industry flourishes in the Sacramento Valley and a small portion of the San Joaquin Valley. About half of the rice produced in California stays in the US, the rest is exported to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Middle East. Rice is also produced in two other principal areas of the United States: the Grand Prairie and Mississippi River Delta of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri and the Gulf Coast of Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

One of the things I like to make with California short grain rice is risotto. I’ve been using it for years now and prefer it to the more traditional Arborio rice from Italy. To me Risotto is a comfort food, much like mac-n-cheese.

Farmhand Risotto

Tonight I put together a risotto hearty enough to satisfy a hungry farmhand or just a very hungry gal looking for some comfort food. It combines short grain rice, chicken stock and vegetables fresh from this morning’s Farmers’ Market, fresh carrots, crimini mushrooms, onions and tender spring spinach. I also used celery and country sage sausage, a touch of fresh thyme from my garden, a pat of sweet butter, some baked garlic cloves I had on hand, and a sprinkling of grated Asiago cheese just before serving. Served with a simple mixed green salad and a glass of wine it was the perfect dinner on this rainy spring evening.

Additional information and recipes for California rice can be found at California Rice Commission.

3/10/11 – Annie’s article  for step by step information on how to make risotto.

Soup – The Perfect Food

The weather here in sunny Northern California has definitely changed.  Night temperatures have been in the 40’s, with the last couple of days barely hitting 60 with no sun to speak of.  Not exactly my favorite kind of weather. I much prefer the sunshine.  It’s these crisp fall days that remind me it’s time to start making one of my favorite meals again, soup. To my mind there is nothing better on a cold drizzly day than a hot bowl of homemade soup.

Soup was one of the things my mom often made during the late fall and winter months. It was the perfect way to feed eight growing children a healthy nutritious meal on tight budget. Sometimes it was made using beef bones, sometimes she used chicken or turkey and often it was with split peas or beans and veggies, lots of different veggies. Her soups were always delicious, filled you up and made you warm inside.

According to ehow\’s The History of Soup , soup making is considered to be as old as the history of cooking. Soup was and still is inexpensive to make; it’s filling and easy to digest making it the perfect food for young and old and all those in between.

I’m not much on canned soups. For me, they have far too much salt (needed as a preservative). But for many it is the only kind of soup they have ever experienced. I hope if you are one of those who has only experienced canned or processed soup you will try this simple soup recipe. It will provide you with a delicious soup in about a half hour. I know it takes more than opening a can but I promise you the little bit of work you do will be well worth the effort.

Chicken Vegetable Soup

First pour yourself a nice little glass of wine. Take a sip and then pour a little olive oil in a two-quart pot, add about a cup and a half of quartered crimini mushrooms and sauté until they just begin to brown. Remove to a bowl. Next add equal amounts of chopped carrot, onion and celery (this is called mirepoix) I added about a cup of each. Sauté the mixture until the onion softens, the celery and carrot may not be soft but that’s OK. Then add about a quart of chicken or vegetable stock (your preference homemade or canned, but be aware of the salt content if your using canned) a diced potato (firm red or white skinned variety is preferred) and some fresh herbs, I used sage, thyme and parsley and bring to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are just tender when you pierce them with a fork. With a potato masher, mash the mix a little to thicken the soup. Don’t mash too much unless you want a thick soup. At this point if you have mashed the stock and veggies a lot and want a thicker soup like chowder you can add some ½ and ½ and make it a cream stock and then add some diced cooked chicken or turkey. I didn’t go that route, but the more I write about it and think how tasty that would be, I may be trying that soon. Along with the chicken I added some leftover cooked green beans. Once it’s all together give it a good stir, let the chicken and green beans warm up and your soup is ready to serve. For a delicious topper I added some fresh sage leaves that I had sautéed in butter until they were crisp.  Shredded Parmesan cheese is also a nice addition to this soup but I didn’t add it this time.

Remember the mirepoix, it’s a basic for many soups and sauces.  Add some stock, fresh herbs, vegetables, grains, and meat if you wish and in about 30 minutes you’ll have an economical meal that will warm your soul and make you smile.

Ananas

I have had this post in a folder on my desktop for two months now and for whatever reason, none of them very good that I can think of, I couldn’t get it from my desktop to Anniespickns. Yes, work was pretty intense for a month or so, and yes I have been running around seeing all kinds of beautiful scenery and getting my gardens planted but the article was pretty much done, just sitting there. But in my mind it would take more effort than I was willing to give to move it to it’s final resting place, until this morning. I awoke at 5:05am and was sure that the correct time was 6:05am since the time change occurred earlier this morning. Then after I had gotten up, put on the tea water and awoken my Mac I realized that I was indeed up an hour earlier than needed, and this on a Sunday morning. So after I read a few blogs I follow,  the guilt of not dealing with my own blog got the best of me and I opened the folder marked ananas.doc and got to work. Here finally is the result.

Last year I grew Ambrosia melons in my little garden.  They are by far my favorite melon so my intention was to grow them again this year. I don’t get very many off one vine, I think I got 3 last year, but there is something very satisfying about being able to pick a melon out of your backyard then take it inside, cut it open and eat it. Well, when I was at the Davis Farmers Market this spring looking for melon plants I found one called Ananas, an historic heirloom variety, grown by Thomas Jefferson in 1794 and offered commercially in the USA in 1824.   It sounded interesting, so I bought one, with the hope that it would equal or surpass my beloved Ambrosia.

Into the ground it went. It flourished and grew, and spread throughout the squash plant and intermingled with the Persian Baby Cucumbers. I fed it and watered it and dreamed of the day when I would finally get to taste it. I started seeing blooms, then small melons the size of the tip of my pinky.  The melons grew larger as the summer wore on. The melons continued to develop but still were very green. Just before Labor Day I noticed that the first melon was starting to turn a lighter color and finally it turned yellow. I checked it to see if the stem would fall away from the melon several times before it finally did. There it was, my beautiful Ananas melon, ripe and ready to eat. Into the house I went. I cut it in half. The aroma was sweet and the juicy ivory colored flesh had a blush of orange color in the center where the seeds were. Now the test, my first bite. Well, the flavor didn’t blow my socks off but it was good. I harvested three melons from my little vine and enjoyed each of them but I think I will go back to my Ambrosia next year, unless something else peaks my curiosity.

Here’s a bit of information I found when I was doing a little research on the Ananas; “The Ananas melon is one of the most popular heirloom melons grown in the United States today and is also widely grown in the Middle East. Another common name for this variety is Pineapple Melon.” Interesting that it is supposedly one of the most popular heirloom melons grown in the US and I had never heard of it and the farmer who I bought the plant from was trying it for the first time also.  Melons are part of the plant family Cucurbitaceae, which consists of squashes, melons and gourds, including cucumber, and luffas and those with edible fruits were amongst the earliest cultivated plants in both the Old and New Worlds.  The fruit is often a kind of modified berry called a pepo (a modified berry with a hard outer rind). For more information on “true” berries including a good description of the term check out my post  “Persimmons are true berries – What?”.

Santa Fe’s Other Little Pepper

New Mexico is known for their chili peppers. If you visit in the fall you will see ristras, or arrangements of drying chili pepper pods, hanging everywhere. These colorful ristras were available at the Santa Fe Farmers Market when I visited a week ago. But, this year I also learned that Santa Fe has another little chili pepper that has made quite a hit there.

The peppers are called Shishito. They are about two to three inches long with a wrinkled thin skin, and a sweet-hot taste. The ones I tasted straight from my friend’s garden (seeds included) were not HOT but my friend said that every once in a while you’d get one with a little kick. They were very tasty.

Saturday morning we headed down to the Santa Fe Farmers Market and while tasting my way through the local delicacies, I happened upon some freshly roasted Shishito. WOW, they were fantastic. They were stir-fried in olive oil with garlic until charred, then sprinkled with a little sea salt. You eat everything but the stem.

I was a little shocked by the price though. They were selling for $8. per lb. After thinking about what we went through harvesting my friend’s two small plants I realized that maybe that wasn’t such a high price. Harvesting them is a kin to harvesting Sweet 100 tomatoes. The peppers are small and there are lots of them hiding amongst the plants leaves.

When I got home from New Mexico I decided to poke around on the internet to see if I could find some seed for these little beauties and guess what, there is a seed company in nearby Oakland, CA, Kitazawa Seed Company. I’m thinking these would be great addition to my “mini” veggie garden.

If you get a chance to try these either at a restaurant, I hear they are great in tempura, or at a farmers market, give them a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Apricot Crisp for the 4th of July

Here’s a sure fire way to get compliments on your 4th of July dessert. Make a fruit crisp. They are easy to make and there are all kinds of variations that help to make them extremely versatile. First thing will be to get out to your local Farmers Market and pick up some nice fresh fruit. Peaches, apricots, pulots and plums are in season here in northern California. I love apricots, so that’s what I chose for my crisp.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to see what my mentor, James Beard, had to say about crisps. I know everyone’s more familiar with Julia Child, especially since the movie, but James has always been my favorite. His cookbook is one of the few, on my shelves, that I still use, both as a reference guide and for a few recipes that have become favorites. And, yes Julia’s books are there too.

Fruit Crisp or Crumb Pie

American Cookery ©1972

“These are often made without a crust and served as a pudding topped with whipped cream or ice cream.

Place the fruit in an unbaked shell with fluted edges. Melt the butter in a 1 ½ to 2 quart saucepan. Remove from the heat, stir in the sugar, flour, spices, and salt. The amount of sugar will depend on the type of fruit used. Apricots and some tart plums may take more sugar.  Apples, pears, peaches and prunes may take slightly less than 1 cup. Brown sugar is generally preferred for apples, peaches, and pears. The amount of spice will depend upon taste. Cinnamon is generally used for apples; nutmeg, mace or allspice is good with peaches or apricots. Add just a suggestion of clove along with cinnamon and nutmeg to prunes or plums. Pears are good with the addition of ½ teaspoon ginger. Scatter the mixture over the fruit. And bake the pie about 30 to 40 minutes in a 400-degree oven, or until the topping is crusty and the fruit is tender. Cool on a rack. Serve warm or cold, with whipped cream or ice cream, if you like.”

The version I have developed is a little different from James’,  in that I use oatmeal and nuts in the crumble topping and I never use a bottom crust. But I still refer to James for ideas on how to substitute other fruits and seasonings and how much sugar to add. You can also vary from pecans by trying walnuts or almonds. If you really want to get decadent try macadamia nuts in the topping with pears as the fruit and maybe just a hint of cardamon. You’ll also note in my recipe that I didn’t use any spice although James recommends allspice. I really just like the apricots on their own.

Annie’s Apricot Crisp

4 – 5 cups apricots cut in halves (about 15 apricots)

¼ cup sugar

1-tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Mix ingredients together and place in a lightly greased 8 x 8 glass baking dish.

For the topping:

½ cup butter

½ brown sugar

½ cup flour (I use oat flour, but you can use wheat or white)

½ cup Old Fashioned oats

1 cup chopped pecans

Mix together in a small bowl. I use a pastry cutter to mix this together as it keeps the ingredients in a more crumbly texture. Squeeze the topping into chunks and scatter over apricots (see photo of what I like the texture to look like)

Bake in a 350° oven for about 40 – 50 minutes or until topping is browned and fruit is bubbling.

Serve warm if possible, with ice cream, whipped cream or if it’s breakfast or brunch time try serving it with unflavored Greek yogurt.

Have a wonderful holiday everyone!

A tangelo and zucchini met one morning and formed a beautiful partnership.

Like most mornings I awoke bright and early Sunday and ambled into the kitchen to make my morning tea. It was beautiful outside, not too cool, which it has been for the last few days, you could feel that summer just might be really going to come. Teacup in hand I found myself in my garden puttering around as I am apt to do. Often puttering involves watering the many potted plants that line the patio and that’s where I was when I found myself thinking about the many errands that I needed to run after I finished my weekly trip to the Farmers Market. But, it was so nice out. Was I really going to drive to the Farmers Market then continuing driving around doing errands? NOPE! Not this Sunday. As soon as I finished my puttering, I was off to the garage, to check the air in my bike tires and attach my

The ride was really beautiful. I decided to check out the new section of the Sacramento Riverfront bikeway which runs parallel to the river and then cross over the freeway on the newly opened pedestrian/bike way. The new section of trail is really great.  I wish I had taken some pictures so I could show you. From the Riverfront trail and freeway overcrossing it is just a few blocks, through urban streets lined with beautiful mature trees, until I arrive at the market where my focus would be to see if I could pick up a few tangelos and for a muffin recipe I would make upon my return. Oh, and get some fruit and veggies for the week, which I did; a couple ears of corn, assorted summer squash, some green and yellow wax beans, two red onions, eight white nectarines and peaches, and three tangelos.

Today is the first day of summer and with its heat comes the real beginning of the summer squash season. In about another month the newness of summer squash will have started to wear off and those of us with squash plants will be getting more than we need much less want. We’ll be eating it often and giving the excess away. And then, there will come that day when we and even our friends and neighbors have had enough squash. Before it comes to that and while we’re all excited about summer squash I wanted to give you idea for another way you can use it. Bake up a nice batch of Tangelo-Zucchini Muffins. Bake them in the morning like I did and serve them warm, preferably on the patio or in the garden. A beautiful, and I might add tasty, way to celebrate a summer morning.

Tangelo-Zucchini Muffins

makes 12 muffins

1 cup shredded summer squash (I used zucchini but any summer squash will do. If the squash is really large discard the seedy part before shredding.)

2 eggs

½ cup safflower or other high-quality vegetable oil (I used canola and a little olive oil since I didn’t have enough of the canola.)

2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed juice (I used tangelo. You could use orange if you’d prefer.)

1 ½ teaspoons grated zest (I used the zest from one tangelo.)

1-teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups unbleached flour

½ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ cup chopped pecans (you could use walnuts instead)

½ cup dried cranberries (you could use golden raisins instead)

Preheat oven to 35o° F. Grease 12 regular-sized muffin tin or I used paper cupcake liners

Beat the egg in a mixing bowl until lemon colored. Add the sugar, oil, juice, zest and vanilla. Beat until thick and smooth.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, pecans and cranberries. Fold the dry mixture into the egg mixture, stirring just until well blended. Spoon batter into the prepared muffin-tin, filling each hole about three-fourths full. Bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center of a muffin tests clean, about 20 – 25 minutes. Cool in the muffin tins for about 3 minutes before turning out. Serve warm.

Variation: To bake as a loaf, pour the batter into a greased 9 by 5-inch loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out.

Ever wonder what’s seasonally fresh in your neck of the woods?

Epicurious.com has a nifty interactive map on their site that lets you check out what’s fresh in your area. Just click on your state and up pops the info. You’ll also find ingredient descriptions, shopping  guides, recipes, and tips and other Seasonal Cooking articles. You’ll definitely want to bookmark this.

A seasonal guide to what\’s fresh at your Farmers\’ Market.

Check it out and then head out to your local Farmers’ Market this weekend. Let me know what you bought and I’ll share the same. Have a great weekend.