Remembering the Five Lands

Manarola Train Station

Every so often I get a severe case of the travel bug.  There’s something about particular mornings that have this “I’m going on an airplane” feel to it.  Even though I have no travel plans (as of yet) to go anywhere in the near future.  But the feeling is so thick and real, I can nearly smell the coffee in the bustling airport, or the stale cigarette in the yellow cab, or the sound of the rhythmic clicking of wheels from the suitcase as they roll speedily along the grooves of the tile.

Coastal village of Manarola taken from the Via Dell'Amore trail.

I woke up early this morning, just before the crack of dawn, and had that insatiable thirst for traveling.  I couldn’t go to sleep.  I tossed and turned and daydreamed of the potential fate of travel.  When I get these whims of nostalgia, the first thing I do is lug myself (with a cup of coffee or tea in my Choco Cat mug, of course) to the computer and check out airfare to all the places on my wishlist.

My flat's view: a sunset over Manarola's rooftops.

This morning is hot, slightly sticky, and bright.  It reminds me of the Cinque Terre, a coastal set of five villages on the Italian Riviera.  I stayed in a little two story flat (living area and kitchen downstairs, one bed and bath upstairs), in the car-less village of Manarola.  To get anywhere, one must either walk, bike, or take the train (the train station is a little hike away from the village).  For those in seek of a picturesque Italian village, I implore you to visit the Cinque Terre.  Nobody I talked to was disappointed, and even the locals knew they were living in a hidden jeweled section of the world.

Neighbor's lemon tree (which she so generously shared every day).

The five villages, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Rioamaggiore, of the Cinque Terre (which is translated to “Five Lands” in English), are all connected by a walking trail which range from “easy” to “difficult”.  I remember the trail from Manarola to Corniglia being surprisingly easy, but with a steep step of 368 stairs in the end.  The hardest trail was from Vernazza to Monterosso; it’s very steep, but by far the most spectacular.  I remember being perpetually amazed with the olive orchards and vineyards; as though I was walking through an Italian fairytale of make believe.  Such beauty actually existed?  I thought Hollywood movies created these images and romantics through pixels and digital effects.  To walk through it in the flesh is a memory I can gratefully say I remember well.

Do you wish to share a travel memory?

All Choked Up

I realize I may write about food more than anything else, but I’m sorry: I just can’t help it lately.  And if you told me I’d be taking pictures of produce ten years ago, I think I might have hung myself from boredom.  However silly I sometimes can get (taking pictures of a salad; a beet; a Kombucha bottle; and now an artichoke), I have to say that I’m terribly fascinated by vegetables, fruits, or any other living matter outside.  In other words, nature.  They’re all just so … so … complex!

This morning while watering the garden I noticed the artichoke plant.  It’s never been a heavy producer, and we’d be lucky to get one.  Last year nothing happened to the plant, so this year we figured the same thing would happen.  But to our great surprise, something has happened; it’s stocked full of artichokes (about 10).  Barefoot and feet pressed against the damp summer morning grass, I walked over to the plant.  One hand holding a hose, the other holding a cup of tea.  Hair long and crazy, shorts and long shirt, and having a conversation with an artichoke:  Hey, good morning Artichoke!  Nice to meet you.  It’s been a while.

I suppose it’s safe to say, a happy gardener has a happy garden.

So, readers, is there anything in your garden this year that has surprised you?

Just Beet It

On a hot summer night, there’s nothing that says “crisp cool salad for dinner” better.  A nice balsamic vinaigrette, with delicate garden lettuces, plump tomatoes, spicy chives, goat cheese and avocado always hits the spot for me, but tonight I wanted to do something slightly different.  I also wanted to use up some of the beets in our back garden.  And so, in mind of forgoing the traditional Caesar Salad with Romaine, I decided to use Beet Greens.  And what a surprise!   It made my taste buds very pleased.


  • One beet, fully cooked (300° F baked in oven for 1 hr)                              
  • Entire stock of beet greens
  • 3-4 leaves of red or green leaf lettuce
  • Handful of croutons
  • 3 T fresh Parmesan
  • 1 T Caesar Salad Dressing
  • Roasted chicken (optional)

Makes 2 servings.

You can probably just toss everything together, but I always do it the same way every time: add greens together, dressing and mix together.  Then sprinkle Parmesan cheese, stir.  Add croutons, chicken and cooked beet on top.  (In other, simpler words, your basic salad making skills) Voila!  It’s a nontraditional Caesar Salad!

The Little Visitor

Our back garden burst into color this week (finally – after a long bout of unusual wet and chilly weather here in the Pacific Northwest, the sun has finally made her appearance).  The daisies are back.  The fuschias  bloomed.  The sweet peas sweetly opened.  The clematis, though hiding behind our pompous grapevine, are shyly saying hello.  And there’s this big, beautiful, show-off of a red flowery plant that I don’t know the name of.  It looks like this:

… So, feel free to let me know what it is!  I’ve tried asking around (by foolishly trying to describe it: “Oh, you know.  It’s this big RED plant with, uh, lots and lots of green spindly leaves this big that look like tall blades of grass.  The flowers go pew! pew! out like a, um, like a lot of other little red flowers.  And it’s really big.  Did I mention it’s red?” … Needless to say, people look at me and tell me, “Sorry, I don’t know what plant you’re describing.  A fuschia?”).  I suppose I can always snip off a branch and show it to my local nursery.

Today, however, while admiring this big mystery plant, I heard the welcoming sound of an old friend.  The hummingbird.  This mystery plant is not only gorgeous, but the hummingbirds go crazy over it!  And I mean crazy.  In the mornings it’s not an unusual sight to see four or five hummingbirds at the same time drinking the sweet nectar from the mystery plant.  They’re such darling little birds.  They’re like a cross between a butterfly, a fairy, and a small bird.  And with such sweet music.  Welcome back, little ones!

A Splash of Color

Everybody has a favorite vegetable to grow.  Some prefer fingerling potatoes for their knobbly finger-like shape, while some favor a tedious vegetable like the artichoke for a sense of great accomplishment.  Mine, however, is the rainbow chard.  Why?  For one, it tastes delicious and secondly, for their assortment of colors! 

A general rule of thumb for gardening is to have as many colorful vegetables in the garden.  You know the saying: More color, more health.  Chalk your garden up with color!  Eggplant, radicchio, radish, blue/purple/white/red potatoes, pomegranates, purple cabbage!  Red veggies are packed with a natural pigment called “lycopene” or “anthocyanins” … big words for a rather simple meaning.  They help in reducing risk of cancers, liver damage, heart disease, as well as containing awesome antioxidants protecting our aging skin from further damage.  We all hear the word “antioxidants” labeled in everything now – wine, shellfish, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  We live in a civilized era now with information and tools of resource at (literally) the tips of our fingers.  Everybody can learn how to eat and live healthily without having to make an appointment at the nutritionalists (unless there are other underlying health problems).  But for the most part, it’s an easy thing to do.

This doesn’t mean, however, we all live by it.  I, myself, plead guilty to a Mary Poppin’s hypothetical suggestion: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!

A Rose By Any Other Name …

There are two types of flowers that send me in delirious happiness when I smell them: roses and sweet peas.  I love the two for different reasons.  Roses always takes me to the present, and gives me a sense of immediate enjoyment for the day.  Sweet Peas, on the contrary, sends me back in time when my late grandfather would pluck them from his garden and place them in one of my Nana’s beautiful antique vases in time for morning’s breakfast.  A rose by any name would smell so sweet… this goes for Sweet Peas, too.

During rose blooming season, there are a few things I like doing.  I like trimming them and placing them vicariously around the house in vases (or jars, if I don’t have any more vases, which always seems to be the case).  I like making potpourri (I use this recipe).  And most especially, I like getting “Petal Showers” from my two little boys as they dance around me with giggles and sweet childish kisses.

When my Sweet Peas bloom, I snip the flowers off immediately (they multiply in abundance the more you snip away) and place them in little jars on nightstands in the bedroom and everywhere else that volunteers, “Here!” (which is just about everywhere).  Like the Lilac, Sweet Peas scent up a room so fast and so sweetly – no artificial room spray or “plug-in” could suffice. 

So, in respect to Shakespeare himself, What’s in a name? That which we call a rose /By any other name would smell as sweet.

Pea Green With Envy

Let’s face it: today being green is hot. We can thank global warming for that.

Thanks global warming, for making it fashionable to wear hemp socks and recycled shoes from consignment stores (just spritz ‘em in baking soda for a natural deodorizer, right?). Oh, and thanks for making it cool to make us “bag people” at grocery stores, as we juggle a bag full of bags. Paper or plastic? Nah, I’ve got my own bags!
You know you’re hip when you have more recyclables than garbage. Or for women: minerals in place of makeup, crystals for pits or sea sponges for tampons? Or for men: shaving cream or electric razor? Grow a beard! Guys checking out another man’s new car, lifting up the hood to check out the new engine are a thing of the past; it’s all about the gears, the pedals, the lightweight carbon frames, which is why a Bianchi Infinito Ultegra is the new Ferrari.

We not only buy local when it comes to food, but we grow it in our backyard. And speaking of the backyard, the backyard doghouse has been replaced by the chicken coop. We drink our organic tea in locally made pottery mugs and admire our “Go Natural!” lives. And then we see our neighbor pull up in her Prius, the newest “green” craze. She invites a local Environmental Councilman for dinner. The jealousy strikes. The desire for a greener life, greener friends and people in “green power” hits like a wall of biodegradable plastics.

You get pea green with envy.

One would think as grown, mature and responsible adults, we would know how to conquer the envy demons. After all, with all the self-help books, tapes, seminars and classes offered one would think we would be mentally sound, clear and balanced individuals in a constant state of utopian satisfaction. This isn’t the case, however, for many of us. We get jealous, we get angry, we get moody and we become emotionally challenged. You can see it in yourself when you envy your neighbor’s vegetable garden. You think to yourself, “How did they get so many peas this year?” You look at yours and see your pathetic “bunch” (the one, just moments ago, you were so proud of). Or you see your friends’ children participating in every local event and think, “I want my child to have that!” At an evening concert in the park, you see a couple, hand in hand laughing and telling witty environmental political jokes over wine and cheese with their other go-go-organic friends and want that (whether you already have it or not). It’s so easy to fall into the proverbial sickening landfill of “organic desire.”

In contrast to other jealousies, wanting and striving to be greener than your friends and your friends’ friends isn’t such a bad thing. Every decade has their envies and hypes. The 1980s had the frizzed hair, padded shoulders and pursuit to climb the corporate ladder, even if it killed you. The 1990s with overly-introspective people pondering the existence of life and reality over a cup of coffee. The 2000s had the computer madness ‘simplifying’ life through a virtual reality and simplifying everything with a thousand different chords and outlets to make it easier (finding a new outlet seemed to be difficult for many, pun intended). And now we have it all combined: the career, the life-pondering, the computers and the “green life” all rolled into one. If you think about it (over a cup of organic joe of course) maybe being green with jealousy isn’t such a bad thing. After all, the grass is always greener — on the other side.

How To Make Kombucha

I am drinking a delicious chilled homemade kombucha as I write this.  And to my great satisfaction, I am happy to announce that my first batch turned out as good as I could have hoped.  My only “complaint” (if you can really call it that – I’m seriously so proud of myself and happy to open the refrigerator, finding 5 bottles of freshly brewed, carbonated kombucha tea waiting for my enjoyment!) is it only made 5 16oz bottles.  This means I can only have a little less than a bottle a day.  I’m greedy when it comes to my daily kombucha intake and wouldn’t mind if I had about 2 bottles.  And I certainly want enough to make where I can actually share with my friends and family.  So, with this in mind, I’m going to start and double the recipe.

If you want to make Kombucha, it’s really simple.  All you need are these ingredients:

* 1 gallon boiled water

* 2-3 black or green tea bags

* 1 healthy kombucha organism (oftentimes called a “mother” or “scoby”, which stands for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts’)

* 1/2 cups organic raw sugar (some people use 1 cup)

* 1 cup existing kombucha fermented brew (I would recommend a GT’s Raw Organic Kombucha) – aka “mother brew”

The most difficult item to find is the Kombucha organism, but there are ways to get one.  Once you start asking around your local co-op and checking out their message boards, you might find a couple of local people who have been making their own kombucha for years and have extra organisms their existing scoby has made.  If you don’t want to go down that route, you can find them online.  A good website that I’ve known people to go through are  I found that the easiest way to get one was to ask around, and strike up Kombucha conversations (easier than it sounds, trust me!).


Before anything, be sure everything in your kitchen (utensils, countertops, gallon jar you use, etc) are CLEAN.  Because this is an organic culture, in its raw state, a clean environment is the safest way to go.

Step 1: Boil water. Once water is boiled, "brew" tea bags in and let it steep for 8-24 hours. I used PG Tips tea bags (a personal favorite).

Step 2: Take tea bags out and add sugar, dissolving completely. The organism feeds on sugar; without it, you will not have kombucha, so there is no "replacement" for this. Additionally, the "sugars" are digested into the organism, producing organic acids, vitamins (primarily B and C), amino acids and enzymes. So, the sugar isn't really sugar anymore, but now healthy living organisms which are crucial to kombucha's reputable health benefits.

Step 3: Add mother brew to tea mixture, and pour this in your gallon-sized jar, then float "scoby" on top. Cover jar lightly with cloth, and seal tightly with large solid rubber band. Store in dark place (preferably in warmish 70 degree place for 7-12 days. Some use a seed mat, however I made a shelving system earlier this year to help germinate seeds. I covered one of the shelves, creating a "dark place" and took out the fluorescent grow lights, however left the bottom shelves' lights on, thus creating a warming system for the top, where I stored the Kombucha.

Step 4: On day of last fermenting period, pour Kombucha in clean glass jars (I recycled old GT’s Synergy Kombucha bottles), and store in refrigerator. From this point on, you can play around with different flavors. Original kombucha is a personal favorite, but my kids (and me too) enjoy the sweeter versions. From the garden, I pureed four strawberries for two of the Kombucha bottles (they turned out delicious!) and also about 7 Black Currant Berries for a separate Kombucha drink.

Black Currant Berries from our garden

Some who are skeptical of “living organisms” and homemade projects involving live cultures in ones’ kitchen, I can rest assure this is a very safe and healthy task.  Some might question the fermentation process with tea and yeast, creating an “alcholic beverage”.  This is a valid concern, however to put your mind at ease, while the yeasts do create alcohol, the bacteria in the cultures eats up the alcohol and produces organic acids.  Very small amounts of alcohol, about 1%, are left in the Kombucha.

There are so many wonderful benefits for Kombucha.  I find I feel more energized, balanced, and clear during the day when I have about 2 cups.  I forgo coffee or tea, and drink my Kombucha in place of any other caffeinated substance.  It’s a good feeling.  A cleansing feeling.  It has been claimed to improve metabolic disorders, HIV, arthritis, chronic fatigue, liver damage, allergies, hypertension, and cancers.  And, getting past the initial “shock” of its vinegary taste … it becomes a delicious treat.  So much, in fact, you’ll want to make it yourself.