Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Winter Comes to the North Bay

You know it's Fall when the grape vines change from green to gold.
As a native New Englander and life-long Yankee, I'm used to seasons marked by dramatic changes in both weather and landscape.  Not so where we live now in the Napa Valley area of the North Bay.  The area is famous for its Mediterranean climate, perfect growing the grapes that make this the countries most famous wine growing region.  

Spring, Summer, and Fall the weather is so stable, except for the occasional hot summer days that push into the 90's, the average daytime temperature is in the 70's to low 80's and it quickly drops into the 60's once the sun sets in the evening. Humidity is rare, as is rain.
On December 9th, this tree still had plenty of green leaves.
Since the Fall temperatures both last year and this year were unseasonably warm, the only way I could tell it was Fall (except for checking the calendar) was when the luscious green foliage in the vineyards changed to burnt orange and gold.

The glorious red and orange colors of New England are rare here, although sugar maples and other trees that provide brilliant fall colors have found their way to nurseries here and do pop up here and there.

Still, while deciduous trees do turn color and shed their leaves, the prevailing color here is gold with occasional pops of orange.

Late into November, this tree was still mostly green.  It finally dropped its leaves just before Christmas.

I love the orange colors on some of the trees.  When the sun is shining, it almost seems as though the trees are on fire!


The other striking difference between New England and the Napa Valley is that while things are turning brown in the Northeast's winter landscape, the rains turn the hills green as fresh new growth replaces the brown grass and brush that gradually dried out and went dormant over the dry summer.

Looking out at the hills behind our apartment, the golden swaths of grapevines in the vineyards contrast with the fresh grass in the bright green fields and pastureland.

The hills behind our apartment...  starting to green up with the recent rain.

The rains gradually increase through the Fall  but Winter is the rainy season and we get roughly 85% of the annual 20'1/2 inches of average rainfall between November and March.  Both rainwater and melting snow from the snow packs in the mountains refill the aquifers and provide the groundwater used for irrigation during the growing season.

For the last four years, the winter rain has been abysmally low  resulting in a lengthy and worrisome drought.  Last year was exceedingly dry but the December 2014 rainfall at 11.03 inches (almost 3 times our usual December rainfall) helped to avert disaster when the January rains, usually the highest amount of rainfall for the year, simply never came.

But we are off to a better start this year.  Ordinarily, we get about 2.5 inches of rain in November and 3.8 inches of rain in December.  So far this winter, we have received a decent amount of rain: almost 2 inches for November and a respectable 2.8 inches to date this month.

But even better for the long term outlook is that many of the recent storms skidded past us, leaving a scant half inch or less of rain behind and instead carrying the water inland where it was deposited in the form of snow in the mountains.

The Sierra Nevadas now boast a 10 foot snow pack, double what is usually accumulated this early in the season.  In fact, ski resorts opened weeks ahead of schedule with natural, not man-made snow.   With a strong  el nino predicted to give us an exceptional amount of rain over the next two months, we may reach our annual average and make up some of the deficit of the previous three years.  And if the snow pack in the mountains continues to benefit from Mother Nature's munificence, we may be in good shape when the rains roll out and April rolls in.

But I'm still having some trouble getting used to "Winter" in the valley, where Christmas lights are draped over a blooming lemon tree and snake through window boxes full of blooming annuals that would have long since perished in the hard New England frosts.

The lemons are ripe and the lemon tree is in full bloom, as are the snapdragons in the window box.
The coleus were pulled two weeks ago after they became leggy and went to seed (neglect on my part) and were replaced with pansies which thrive in the cooler temperatures.  But the calibrachoa is thriving and still has a couple of blossoms.  
Chanukah, 2015 with a Boston Fern thriving outdoors -- not in Boston!
Chanukah lights weaving through blooming annuals and the lemon tree.

Watching the storms move in across the hills and up from San Pablo Bay is fascinating.  In early November, I tuned into the mid-day news one day and heard that we would be having severe weather by 2 PM.

Outside, the sky was bright blue, the sun was shining, and the temperature was a balmy 66 degrees. 

I waited patiently but the promised rain didn't materialize and so just shy of 4 PM I got ready to walk the dogs over to the park where we usually get our afternoon exercise.  As I was getting a sweater and leashes, I heard what sounded like thunder claps and then the living room suddenly became dark.

When I looked out, I was shocked to see a fast-moving storm had blown in.  Lightening joined the thunder and torrential rain broke through the clouds and gave way to pelting hail.  The storm barely lasted an hour but dropped just over a half inch of new rain on the sun parched earth. It moved out as quickly as it moved in and when the sun finally poked back through the clouds, the temperature was a brisk 51 degrees F.

The storm moved in quickly and the blue sky disappeared under the roiling gray clouds.
This was the angriest cloud and the backdrop for much of the lightening.
Just as quickly as the clouds rolled in, they blew out and to the east.

We are finally registering the typical winter temperatures usually seen in this climate for this time of year.  Mid to high 30's into the low 40's at night, high 50's into the low 60's during the day.  We've had rain on and off throughout the last 8 weeks but rarely more than several hours at a time. Many of those days, it rained heavily overnight but the sun rose to clear skies.

We close out 2015 with blue skies, brisk temperatures in the mid-50's, and the prospect of generous rainfall over the next 8 weeks from an enthusiastic el nino.  That would indeed be a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Last Rose Blooms of the Season

One of my most favorite roses is Koko Loco, a lovely mauve blend floribunda rose hybridized by rose breeder Christian Bedard in 2010.  Weeks Roses introduced it to the market in 2012 and I've been in love with it ever since. 

Although it has been described as having a mild fragrance, ours is fragrant enough to perfume the patio when the shrub is in bloom, which is most of the growing season.  Peach colored pointed buds open to blooms that are the color of milk chocolate latte.  As the blossoms age, the color evolves to an unusual blend of chocolate and lavender.  The blossoms are large - 4.5 to 5 inches in diameter.

Foliage is a pretty, medium green and semi-glossy. And other than the usual problems with snails and aphids on occasion (they are such a plague where we live...  I have to stay on top of our entire little container garden), it's amazingly disease resistant.  We never see any mold or mildew.

The shrub does well in a pot and is our most prolific bloomer.  It continued blossoming right up through the first week of December when I finally nipped off the remaining buds to force it into dormancy.  I stopped dead-heading in November to encourage it to set hips, which it does quite willingly. 

I previously posted about this rose in October.  Check out that post to see  the variations in color as the blossoms open and age.

I stopped dead-heading to encourage it to set hips.
Sugar Moon, photographed on December 6th
Sugar Moon is a beautiful pure white hybrid tea, also bred by Christian Bedard and introduced by Weeks Roses in 2012.  The blooms are large but ours almost always exceeded the average of 5 inches in diameter.  

With canes that can stretch to 6 feet or taller, we treat it like a short climber and let it trail along the railing on our patio wall.  Our last bloom of the year was an enormous white beauty that measured 6 inches across and was so fragrant, I sat next to it to read one afternoon, just so I could enjoy its heady citrus perfume.

Roses are still well-represented on our patio, however.   In November, I was gifted with several miniature red roses that were fully budded and just beginning to bloom.

Not sure what to do with them, for the winter, I planted them in the herb box in the area where the basil usually grows.  I moved the planter box closer to the apartment so it would get some radiant warmth from the building and more sun exposure.

Here we are approaching New Year's Eve and these little babies are still blooming cheerfully and the foliage is just as glossy and dark as the day I planted them.  Growing behind them on the left  is the last of the oregano.  I harvested it and used quite a bit of it in my tomato sauce last month.  Behind them in the middle of the back is some rosemary, and on the right side of the pot is thyme, two other culinary favorites that find their way into my cooking on a frequent basis.

When it's time to add basil to the planter in the spring, I'll have to decide where to move them but hopefully by then we will have moved to a home with a yard and garden and they can take up residence in a flower bed.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Loving our Meyer Lemon

Just over a year ago when we moved in, we purchased a Meyer Lemon tree at Mid-City Nursery and that tree has been a continuous bright spot on our patio. It's still a very young tree but it produces a near continuous crop of sweet, tasty lemons that I have used to make chicken piccata, lemon tea cookies, and of course, lemonade.

We are ready to harvest all but two of the lemons today, which means I'll  make Steve chicken piccata this week. (Scroll all the way to the bottom for my recipe.)

I love the lemon tree because the fragrance of the blossoms perfumes the entire patio.  The fragrance reminds me a lot of gardenias...  heady, intense, floral.  And once again, it is filled with fragrant blooms which will hopefully lead to another bumper crop of lemons.

Meyer lemons are natives of China, thought to be a cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or common orange.  They were first introduced into the United States in 1908 by a USDA employee and food explorer Frank Nicholas Mayer.  In China, they were primarily considered ornamental trees and they were grown in pots, their fruit largely overlooked as a food staple. 
They languished here as well until re-discovered by restaurateur and Chef Alisa Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkley, California.  Chef Waters, who is credited with pioneering the "California Cuisine" movement in the 1990's, has been one of the most prominent promoters of the movement to use locally grown, organic, fresh ingredients in cooking. 

Whereas Chef Waters increased the popularity of the Meyer lemon in California, Martha Stewart introduced it to the rest of the country when she began featuring it in her recipes in the late 2,000's. 

In 2010, we acquired our first Meyer lemon tree from a mail order nursery after we saw one at a flower show.  The tree was healthy but slow to acclimate -- we kept it indoors in late fall and winter and put it back on the deck in spring after the last frost.  It bloomed prolifically but the fruit was so slow to develop, even slower to ripen, at first we thought they sent us a lime tree by mistake.  I contacted the nursery and when they stopped chuckling, they told me to just be patient...  the lemons would grow and ripen in the fall, and they did.

I love to use Meyer lemons in cooking because they are lemony tart without being sour or bitter.  And Meyer lemons are slightly larger than the usual lemons you get in the store so you get a generous amount of juice and zest.  Below are some more pictures of our lemon tree and if you scroll down to the end of the post, I've included my recipe for Chicken Piccata with Lemon and Capers. 

Chicken Piccata with Lemon and Capers


2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (one per person)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large or extra-large egg
1 Tablespoon water

3/4 cup seasoned dry bread crumbs

Extra light olive oil (2T or enough to coat the bottom of the pan)

1 large or 2 small fresh lemons, reserve thin slices from middle of cut halves, then zest and squeeze

1 can salt free chicken broth
1/2 cup to 1 cup (to taste) white wine (I use Riesling mostly, but Moscato is fine also)
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon  (see above)

1 generous teaspoon fresh lemon zest 
1 generous teaspoon of capers, rinsed
Thin slices lemon (see above)
3 Tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

Pasta, for serving (I use angel hair or linguine)


Prepare the lemons:  Cut each lemon into halves, then slice 2-3 very thin slices from each half (paper thin, half moon slices are fine) and set aside.  Squeeze and zest the lemons. Set juice and zest aside.

Place chicken breasts in a large food storage bag and pound out to 1/4-inch thick.   Cut into medallions approximately 1 to 1-1/2 in wide/long. 

Mix the flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper in a large zip-lock bag. Put the chicken medallions in the bag and shake to coat.  

In a shallow bowl, beat the egg and water together. Place the bread crumbs in a second shallow bowl. Dip each flour-coated chicken breast medallion first in the egg and then roll in the bread crumbs to coat.

Lightly cover the inside bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat.  I use olive oil for sautéing or “extra light” as it has more flavor than extra virgin oil. Add the chicken medallions and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side until browned and just cooked through.  Remove to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm. 

Make the sauce in the same sauté pan. Add the chicken broth, lemon juice, and wine to the pan and adjust the heat to bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Continue to cook until the volume is reduced by about half.
Once the sauce is reduced, turn off the heat and then add the butter, capers, reserved lemon slices, and lemon zest and swirl in the pan to melt the butter and combine. 

To serve, put pasta in a flat bowl, top with chicken medallions, spoon the sauce (include some capers and lemons slices) over the chicken and pasta and garnish with fresh chopped parsley.


Meyer Lemon 
Chef Alice Waters