Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Weekend Road Trip - Hearst Castle, Day 2

I spent the night at Courtesy Inn of San Simeon. It's just down the road from Hearst Castle, and its rate included a continental breakfast. The room was clean and the staff was friendly. I would stay there again when I visit Hearst Castle in the spring. I had dinner at Big Sur Cafe just steps away from Courtesy Inn. The place is a bit pricey since it is for tourists. The staff was very friendly and polite, and they showed a Hearst Castle video for its customers.

In the morning, I got some coffee and grabbed a couple Danishes before checking out from the motel and headed over to Hearst Castle again. As I passed by the Hearst Castle Ranch off Highway 1, there were zebras grazing with the cattle.

I left my jacket in the car before getting on the tour bus. That was a mistake. It was drizzling on top of the hill and significantly colder. Tour 1 group was much larger than the Tour 2 I went on yesterday. We had a tour guide and an other person staying behind the group to make sure that no one wandered off, touched anything, or used flash photography.

As I toured the castle for the second time, I imagined what it would be like to come here to work on a regular basis. It could be my dream job. This place reminded me of Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. I prefer to think of it as a magical floating castle for children of all ages instead of an extravagant hangout for Hollywood celebrities. Mr. Lorenzo Lago, the tour guide from yesterday, mentioned how interesting it would be to write tales about the castle. I could already imagine my characters in it.

The tour ended at the indoor pool that's covered in 24k gold infused tiles. As soon as we got back on the bus, the rain started to pour down hard. After leaving the castle, I put on my rain jacket and went look for elephant seals along the coast, but there was none to be seen. I decided to take Highway 1 back home instead of 101. I passed many huge pine tress along the coast. I bet there were some porcini growing under those pine needles.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Weekend Road Trip - Hearst Castle, Day 1

I like castles and historical castles. My first trip to Europe, I made sure that I visited Edinburgh Castle. My second trip to Europe, I traveled all over Italy. For some reason I did not visit Hearst Castle until this past weekend even though it is only 4 driving hours from Sand Village Farm. I left home at 8:30 A.M. on Friday morning. I made a stop at Wendy's in Salinas to try their new natural-cut fries with sea salt and got a caramel Brulée latte from Starbucks. Both were quite tasty!

I arrived Hearst Castle around 1:30 P.M. I wanted to start my tour with Tour 1 since it was my first time there, and this tour is designed for first time visitors to give them an overview. However, most of Tour 1s were sold out until much later, so I got a ticket for Tour 2 at 3 P.M. and a ticket for Tour 1 on Saturday morning at 9:30 A.M. Tour 1 included the companion movie Hearst Castle Building the Dream shown on the giant 5 story screen in the Hearst Castle Theater, which I was able to watch before my tour began at 3 P.M. The movie answered many questions I had about how the castle was built and the story behind its owners.

Five minutes before 3 P.M., we lined up next to the doors inside of the Visitor Center to have pictures taken then got on the tour bus to take us up the hill to Hearst Castle. On the way up the hill, we passed by the cages that used to house bears and other carnivorous animals of Hearst Castle Zoo. For ten years, Hearst Castle had its own private zoo. Some of the herbivorous animals such as zebras, big horned sheep, and antelopes can still be seen on the property.

My tour guide was Mr. Lorenzo Lago, who was quite humorous and informative. He told us that his first book, Romance on the High Seas, just got published, which will be available on in a few weeks.

There was so much to see in the castle - every door, door knob, tile, ceiling, lamp, painting, statue, etc. I could spend all day there and still be amazed at every little detail. Its architect, Julia Morgan, was one of the first women to graduate from University of California at Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering and the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the Ecole Nationale et Speciale des Beaux-Arts.

I was fascinated by the huge 24-hour kitchen that had every thing any cook could ever wanted. Hearst Castle raised much of its food supply. It had a poultry farm and a cattle ranch (still operational). It also grew many fruits and vegetables. Its water supply came from natural springs above, piped into two reserve tanks of tremendous capacity. In many ways, it was self sustained although extravagant. I wanted to see more of its garden, but Tour 4, the garden tour, is only available from April through October. I will have to come back next spring. Photos are allowed inside of the castle but no flash since harsh light can damage the artifacts. More photos can be viewed at my Hearst Castle album.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Planting Snow Peas

Remember those snow pea seeds I collected back in June? It was then I first started blogging. Now more than 100 blog entries later, I have planted some of those seeds before leaving for Mendocino Woodlands Camp and left them on my new propagation table. I covered the potted seeds with a tray (shown in photo below) to prevent birds and squirrels from eating the seeds.

One morning I forgot to put the tray back down after checking on them. That night I found holes in the soil of cell packs. Some seeds were stolen. I planted a couple more 6-cell packs just in case. In just a couple weeks, the seeds have turned into seedlings. I cleared out the dried up green bean stalks in the the half wine barrel, collected seeds for next summer, and planted the snow pea seedlings into the barrel. This year I am trying something new with planting the snow peas. In the past, I always planted them next to the arbor. This year I am planting them in the wine barrel with a home made cage in the center for the snow peas to climb on. I think this may make picking the peas easier since I can go around the cage and pick them from all directions. We will see in a few months.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Surprise Tiny Visitor in the Garage

I walked into the garage this morning to get some shears to cut down the dried up bean stalks. Suddenly I heard the sound of rapidly flapping wings. It sounded like a huge moth banging against a light bulb. I looked up and was surprised to see a hummingbird frantically banging against the glass on one side of the garage. That side of the garage is composed of multiple panels of glass from the floor all the way to the top. I have no idea how long this hummingbird had been in the garage. Not too long, I hope.

The bird could see me and was freighted. I already had the big garage door rolled up, so I knew it was just a matter of minutes before it would find its way out. I have always want to shoot some photos of hummingbirds, and I have spotted plenty of them in hummingbird friendly Sand Village Farm. Unfortunately, they always buzz away as soon as they sensed my presence. This was the perfect opportunity for me to get some pictures of the tiny bird.

This hummingbird has some sparkly green feathers on its back. Poor thing was so confused as it could see the trees outside but couldn't get there. Finally, it turned toward the other direction and zoomed out of the garage through the rolled up door. Later on I saw the bird visiting the abutilon flowers right outside of the garage glass panels.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanksgiving Festival at California Culinary Academy

After roaming in the woods for 3 days with little sleep and hyperactivity, I came down with bronchitis. For the last 3 days, I drowned myself in organic tomato soup, pork ramen soup, and hot lemon honey tea. I also slept whenever I could with the help of Benadryl. Last night when I woke up from another nap and saw the invitation to attend Thanksgiving Festival at California Culinary Academy, I figured I was ready to go out again. I once considered enrolling in California Culinary Academy for its one year pâtisserie and baking program. I attended one of their open houses a few years ago when they were located off Civic Center BART station. Before heading out this morning, I thought that I'd double check the direction from the BART Station. I was surprised to find that the Academy has moved! It is now located at 350 Rhode Island Street, San Francisco. I decided to drive there since it is not exactly close to a BART station. It turned out that there is plenty of free all day street parking on Saturday and Sunday.

The event started out with a tour. The new facility is very modernized compare to the previous location, which was in a historical building in downtown area. After the tour, we got seated in a room for a Thanksgiving dinner cooking demonstration. As we entered the room, I got a cup of hot lemon apple cider which was perfect for my recovery from bronchitis. I wanted the recipe for that more than anything else. Chef Steve Moore demonstrated a main dish and two side dishes - Turkey Roulade with Sausage & Apple Stuffing, Sweet Potato Gratin, and Fresh Cranberry and Orange Relish.

I am not particularly into turkey, so I was more interested in the way that sweet potato gratin was made. This particular recipe uses curry powder, sour cream, and shredded extra-sharp white cheddar. I was curious what it would taste like compare to the traditional super sweet gooey Thanksgiving sweet potatoes with marshmallows. At the end of demonstration, we all got a small sample plate. You know that I ate everything. I was starving for some solid food after 3 days of soup. The sweet potato gratin worked for me. The curry powder and ground cumin gave it an Indian flair. The white cheddar gave it a semi-savory taste. It was a good balance of both sweet and savory. This is a dish that I will make because the sweet potato is ranked number one in nutrition of all vegetables by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the recipe is not as labor intensive as the turkey dish.

Sweet Potato Gratin


4 pounds of red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams; about 3 1/4 pounds)
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sour cream, divided
3 cups shredded extra-sharp white cheddar (about 12 oz.)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook sweet potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 20 minutes (do not overcook). Drain well and cool. Peel sweet potatoes; cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

2. Mix curry powder, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in small bowl to blend. Completely line bottom of 9-inch-diameter spring form pan with sweet potato slices, filling in any spaces with cut-up sweet potato slices. Press down slightly. Spread 1/2 cup sour cream over sweet potatoes. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon spice mixture over sour cream. Sprinkle with 1 cup cheese. Repeat twice with remaining sweet potatoes, sour cream, spice mixture, and cheese. Place pan on rimmed baking sheet; bake until cheese is melted and sweet potatoes are heated through. about 40 minutes. DO AHEAD Can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover and chill. If desired, reheat in 400 degrees F. oven until hot. about 15 minutes.

3. Remove pan sides from gratin; cut into wedges. Serve gratin warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mendocino Mushroom Camp Weekend - Day 3

I am going to miss this place

On the 3rd day, some people stay near the camp for workshops while others head out for one more foray. From my cabin to the dinning hall, I have to pass a pond and a meadow. The surrounding reminds me of Lothlórien, home of the elves in The Lord of the Rings.

All these tall trees also remind me of Ents, the tree people from The Lord of the Rings. I guess it's not a surprise that I find the woods so beautiful and surreal.

Some bright yellow mushroom on the hill (not slippery jack)

I find a bunch of Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus) on the hill side. Many people regard it as an edible mushroom of low quality, while in Russia, where they are popularly known as maslyata "buttery ones." Slippery Jacks are frequently marinated and are considered a delicacy.

Around 1 p.m., the last few people start to leave the camp since we have to be out by 2 p.m. Well, this is goodbye for now until next year.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mendocino Mushroom Camp Weekend - Day 2

Coral mushrooms can be seen all over the forest

Day 2 is filled with both long and short forays plus various classes - Mushroom Identification, Polypore Paper Making, Cultivation Seminar, Cooking Demo, etc. There is no way anyone can attend everything. Although I wanted to go wherever Master is going, I end up going on a long foray with Norm's group. I am focusing on finding some porcini.

We stop at 4 different spots. At the second spot, I find 2 golden chanterelle, one candy cap, and a baby porcini among many other non-edibles. I find it odd that I am finding such a small amount of each. Normally when you spot one of these mushrooms, you are likely to find a bunch of them nearby.

Norm, Sebastian, and Master Ken (left to right) cooking up some hay for Sunday's cultivation seminar

Dinner is pork loin with creamy chanterelle sauce, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and candy cap mashed sweet potatoes. I am not a fan of Brussels sprouts. In fact, I even made fun of them when I saw them being prepped last night. Now I am helping myself with second serving of Brussels sprouts. Dessert is mixed fruit granola cobbler with fresh whipped cream on top. Needless to say, everything is excellent. After dinner, we all head over to the other meeting hall for David Arora's presentation.

MycoMendoMondo takes place at midnight

Around midnight a group of us gather back in the kitchen for Master Ken's MycoMendoMondo. Master Ken explains that we are going to cook up various unusual wild mushrooms for taste test, make a candy cap cheesecake, brew some apple mead, etc. This is for the hardcore adventurous people as it goes on until almost 4 A.M. Half of the people give up shortly after. Some people return after a nap. Scaly chanterelle, puffballs, gomphus clavatus (pig's ears), and amanita muscaria are cooked separately for everyone to try.

Master Ken holds a kombucha mother while he explains how to make kombucha tea

I cook up a quart of "oriental tea" and add a cup of sugar to it. After it is cooled down, Master Ken talks about Kombucha tea making and adds the sweet tea to the Kombucha jar to feed the mother.

All the mushrooms taste excellent especially since we have Chef Pauly cooking them. My favorite is the puffballs. I will need to start hunting for them. After we all have a taste of candy cap cheesecake, we begin to clean the kitchen for tomorrow's breakfast crew. What a day!

Taste testing

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mendocino Mushroom Camp Weekend - Day 1

My cabin in the woods

The biggest annual event of MSSF (Mycological Society of San Francisco) is the 3-day Mendocino Camp in November. I am attending the camp for the first time since I joined MSSF five years ago. It's a 4-hour drive from El Cerrito to Mendocino. Since I have never attended an event like this before, I packed everything according to the "list of the things to bring" that Lou, MSSF President, emailed to all attendees.

As I enter Mendocino Woodlands Camp, it is as if I am entering a parallel universe. I am surrounded by tall trees, green moss and other vegetation. I can see mushrooms on both sides of the road as I drive further into the woods.

I arrive the camp around 2:30 PM. There are only a few early birds at the parking area. I check in shortly after and head over to my cabin, #35. The cabin in the woods looks like something out of a fairy tale. The cabin has a fire place, 4 beds, and a balcony. There is a shared bathroom with showers about 30 feet away. After I unload my stuff, I hike back to the dinning hall for the Early Bird Foray lead by Norm.

The kitchen inside of Dinning Hall

About 20 of us head over to Camp 2 with Norm in a 15-passenger van. Some people come as far as Salt Lake City and some come with their little kids. The attendees range from age 6 to 70 something (my guess). We all become fast friends as we roam in the woods. It gets dark around 4:30, so we have our mushroom ID session in the dark with flashlights. Each of us carries a flashlight as soon as the sun goes down. The forest is pitch black at night, and there is no lighting in our cabins.

Norm (wearing brown hat) IDs wild mushrooms for us

For dinner, we have wild mushroom lasagna loaded with porcini and chanterelle. After dinner, I see that Master Ken has gathered a full basket of beautiful golden chanterelle already! He is setting up his dehydrator to dry his chanterelle. I am going to follow Master Ken anywhere he goes tomorrow!

Master Ken and his basket of golden chanterelle

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery

Josh of Backyard Food Gardens introduced me to several places for landscape needs when his crew worked on San Village Farm. Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery is his favorite nursery. I was curious because it is in San Ramon, and there are a few good nurseries in Berkeley area. As we existed the freeway on our way to the nursery, it seemed like we were going through a residential area. He made a U-turn and turned into a drive way, and that was when I saw pots and pots of plants as far as my eyes could see.

We started from the "Shade Area" then native plants and then sunny plants. There were a lot of plants to see. If you are looking for variety, this is the place to go. Everything is out in the open. You are not only there to shop but also get to take a walk in a park full of plants. Ideally, I would go take a hike in Mt Diablo and then stop by the nursery to pick out a few plants.

Since Devil Mountain Nursery is a wholesale nursery, you should do some homework before you go shop there. The staff is friendly in helping you with locating the one you are looking for in the sea of plants, but you shouldn't rely on them to teach you everything about gardening and plants. This is a place for gardeners who know what they want.

The place can be a little overwhelming for someone who's only been to small and cramped urban nurseries. If I had gone there by myself, I wouldn't even know where to start. It takes a while to go through everything, so give your self at least an hour to browse if you are going.  It's nice just being out and walk around all the plants that are available to take home with you.

P.S. You must be in or with someone in the landscaping or nursery business to purchase at Devil Mountain Nursery.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sand Village Farm's Three-Day Makeover

Jonathan of Backyard Food Gardens built this beautiful new arbor

Back in August, I started looking for someone to help me with rebuilding the arbor that was falling apart. I thought it could be a project for a horticulture student or students. I received a few inquiries through permaculture department at Merritt College but couldn't find a good fit for the job. On the first day of Mushroom Cultivation class at the end of August, one of the new students in the class started a conversation with me. It turned out that he, Josh, runs a landscape business called Backyard Food Gardens. That night I emailed him to find out more about what services he provides. After looking though his website,, I arranged a time for him to come over and give me an estimate. I decided to give Sand Village Farm a makeover after learning all the options and possibilities

A few days ago, Backyard Food Gardens crew - Josh, Jonathan, Tomas, and Jose arrived with a truckload of tools and started working on getting all the weeds out, putting in an irrigation system, and building a new arbor. On the first day, they set the 4 posts for the new arbor, made wings on the top bars for the arbor, removed all the weeds, ran the tractor all over the hardened soil, and installed the valves for the irrigation system.

On day two, Josh took me to pick out new plants. During the drive to the nursery, I found out that Josh started his landscape business five years ago. When he first started, it was just himself. As the business grew and expanded, he purchased various tools and equipments to work more efficiently. Now he also has a good crew who work well together. Josh became fluent in Spanish from working with his crew everyday, and they study English during their commute to the work sites. As a multi-lingual person, I understand that learning a new language is difficult. I am extremely impressed with these hard working guys.

Sand Village Farm is now covered in mulch

On day three, Josh and Jonathan returned to finish up. Automated irrigation system is a brand new concept for me. Josh gave me a crash course on how to program the time and frequency for different stations.

My propagation table with sprinkler system

This morning, I stood in the rain to admire the work of Backyard Food Gardens.  I can't get over how beautiful it is.  With the automated irrigation system, I won't have to manually water everything or mist my seedlings with a water bottle. I love the new arbor, the propagation table, and all the new plants!

If you are looking for a landscaper, I highly recommend Backyard Food Gardens. Josh can be reached at 510-289-8712 or

Saturday, November 6, 2010

My Miniature Honeydew Melon

A few years ago I tried grown cantaloupe melons. I managed to harvest 2 miniature cantaloupe melons. They were the size of oranges but super sweet. I took a break of two years and decided to try growing melons again. I planted both honeydew and cantaloupe during the summer. I saw a lot of flowers but no melon was forming. Master Ken has talked about the type of weather corn and melons love - so hot that it's uncomfortable to fall to sleep at night. They thrive in that kind of weather, and we are definitely not get that here on Sand Village Farm. We hardly even had any summer this year. We had a couple heatwaves, and one came through while I was in New York. When I came back from New York, I was delighted to see a golf ball size honeydew melon.

More than a month went by, and that melon grew to the size of a tennis ball. I could see that it just wasn't going to get any bigger, and it is now fall. It's not going to get any warmer.  Today I cut it up in quarters to eat it. It smelled wonderful and tasted sweet. Would you buy miniture melons? I would because it is like a personal size melon. You can eat it all by yourself. It would be really cute to serve a scoop of gelato in a halve miniature melon. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dive! Living Off America's Waste

I spent my early childhood years in Asia. One of the very first things they teach you in Asia is not to waste food. Grown ups would tell little kids to finish all the food including every single grain of rice in their bowls. Why? Because every grain came from the hard work of farmers and shouldn't be wasted. Kids learn from an early age that food doesn't fall from sky. Everything we eat is the result of blood and sweet of farmers who work the land. Well, unless you go pick wild food that grow by itself.

When I first came to the Bay Area, I was shocked to see kids in school dumping their lunch into the garbage can. Why were they throwing away perfectly good food?! Didn't they know how much work it is involved to make that spaghetti and pizza? Didn't they know that chickens had to be killed in order for us to eat fried chicken? How could they just dump all that into garbage? As I got older, I became more accustomed to people throwing away food even though I do not agree and can't bring myself to do so. Some people think I have an "issue" with food because I eat leftover. A few guys that I went out on dates with thought I was starved as a kid. They thought maybe I was broke. I guess I enjoy my food much more than other girls on dates.

Later on I learned of food banks that hand out food to families that don't have enough money to buy food. I was confused again. I see food being thrown out everyday, so how could there be people without food to eat? Just last month, I saw a few articles on what Americans are putting in their garbage. It turned out a large part, 25%, of the garbage is food. By wasting food, Americans are also wasting energy - the energy that went into growing the food, processing it, packaging it and transporting it to the consumer and then to the landfill. I am well aware that some Americans simply feel it is within their rights (or blessings) to buy food and throw it away as they wish. I think that just means for the people who do care to work even harder. Here is an American who commented on one of the articles mentioned above:

"Mercurus (USA)

One of the blessings of Liberty is the right to dispose of personal property as you choose. What individuals do with their food is their business and no one elses. This article itself is a waste of time to read, and was a waste of energy to produce and publish. Merc"

Hopefully this Merc will never become poor and have no money to buy food. Perhaps only then, he will understand food doesn't always come easy for everybody. Base on his logic, he probably doesn't bother to read the recycle codes on plastic items or recycle electronic waste since they are his personal property.

A few years ago after I became involved with urban farming community, I started to feel less of an alien. Other urban farmers cherish food as much as I do, and it's not so much because we were broke or starved. We share the understanding of knowing where the food came from. Sometimes we work together in community gardens. We are not going to throw away the fruits and vegetables that we spent last five months growing. If a peach is bruised on one side, I can just cut that side off and put it in the compost pile. The compost will help the peach tree grow better. There is very little garbage around here.

Dive! will just be another one of the environmental documentaries, but it's something for the excessive Americans to think about how much we are throwing away while we complain about unemployment, lack of money, and shortage of food as a nation.