Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Behold my evil gingerbread army

The reason they all have evil red eyes is because that's the only kind of decoration I had.

Zombie gingerbread. Want to eat your brainz....
Evil gingerbread

And here are some very good dogs waiting to eat their gingerbread dog cookies.

It's a labrador eat terrier world out there.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Honey mushroom-mageddon

As I was driving home from Nick's preschool today, I noticed that one of our neighbor's huge elm trees had died and was being cut down.

"Huh," I thought, "A dead tree. I wonder of oak root fungus got it."

Then I looked into her front yard, and saw this:

Oh hai. We is honey mushrooms. We is in your yard killing your trees.
Yeah, I'd say oak root fungus got it. In fact, it's probably the same organism that's been killing my trees (we live three houses down and across the street). Armillaria mellea can get really large. There's one covering 2200 acres somewhere in Oregon.

I narrowly avoided a car accident as I was staring at the mushrooms, dug out my phone, and called my neighbor.

"Hi Julie, I was driving by your house and you have all these mushrooms in your yard."

"Yes, it's the *&#^% oak root fungus, it's been killing my trees."

"I know, I'm sorry about that, I've lost some trees too. Can I have your mushrooms?"

"Ummm... Yeah.... Why?"

"I am going to eat them. They are very tasty. Hello? Julie? Are you there?"

.... silence on the line ....

Telling an American that you are planning to pick and eat wild mushrooms is akin to saying that you've decided that today is a good day to poison yourself. As much as I love this country, one thing they do not do here is eat wild mushrooms. Which is a continuous source of confusion to the many Russian, Polish, Italian, and other immigrants, who just don't understand why not? 

I patiently explained to my neighbor that oak root fungus produces a fruiting body called "honey mushroom", which is delicious sautéed or preserved in salt brine. I explained that honey mushrooms are a relative of shiitake, the harmless fungi you buy at the grocery store. I invited her for an evening of drinking and eating salted honey mushrooms (a classic Russian past-time). 

In the end, I convinced her enough that she let me have the mushrooms. I did not convince her to come for dinner at my house though. I think she's waiting to see if I am still around in the morning.

Good enough.

Armed with a knife and several large containers, I trekked over to the house. The mushrooms looked even more awesome close up.

Honey mushrooms growing along a tree root, probably the one from the tree
in the background. That tree is still alive, but things are not looking good.
Some were over-ripe, but I still ended up with an enormous amount.
The haul.

I haven't had my hands on so many honey mushrooms since we left Russia when I was a teenager. I vaguely remembered horror stories of "we picked all these mushrooms and then we had to clean them". Ah. Yes. That. 

Thankfully, a friend came over just as I was about to start cleaning, and I pressed her into service. I kept her here for over an hour, until all the mushrooms were done. I don't think she's coming by ever again. At least not during mushroom season.

Mushrooms cleaning. Perfect social activity.
Better than Facebook.
The cleaned mushrooms took over every large container I had at the house. That's another childhood memory: looking for pots and bowls to hold honey mushrooms because everything is overflowing.
Ready for processing
Some of the largest caps I put in the dehydrator. I made another liter of salted mushrooms. Even though I already have about four liters in the fridge, I just couldn't stop myself. There will be lots of vodka drinking soon.

The rest I boiled, put in plastic bags, and froze. They will be good in soups, sauces, and just plain defrosted and sautéed later.

And of course, we saved some for dinner. I tried a new recipe tonight. Cooked with garlic, white wine, and some balsamic vinegar.

The mushroom consumer is happy!
We now have enough mushrooms stored up to last us for months. And yet, I cannot stop myself from scanning the ground in my neighborhood looking for more. It's an addiction, I tell you!

And if you want to come over and drink vodka and eat salted mushrooms, come by in about a week, when the salted ones are ready. We'll be waiting.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Best mushroom poetry yet.

A talented friend created a poem to go with the bitter mushroom story.

"Le Beau Champignon Sans Merci"
Oh what can ail thee, wanderer,
Alone on misty forest-heath?
The leaves are fallen in the cold,
A darkling wreath.
Oh what can ail thee, wanderer,
What mourning does your soul embrace?
Your ally looks to you in woe,
A piteous face.
I found a mushroom in the wood,
Full beautiful, of palest gold,
A netted stalk, a velvet cup --
My Grail of old.
Yet bitterness is brought to me,
Though promising a world of good;
Cruelty only shall it be,
In this new wood.
And this is why I wander here,
Alone on misty forest-heath,
Though leaves are fallen in the cold,
Treachery beneath.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I quit. No, really, I quit.

California has many different mushrooms. In particular, it has many different bolete mushrooms. Boletous edulis, the King Bolete, or Porcini, being one of the most famous and sought after. I am still to find one of these. However, I believe I have found pretty much every possible version of bitter bolete species, including a ridiculously rare, not even named one.

Some back story first.

In Russia, where I grew up and learned to identify mushrooms, things were easy. All boletes were good. If it had a sponge on the bottom, it was edible and good. If it was big and had a sponge on the bottom, it was very good. Boletes were some of the first mushrooms you learned to identify because it was easy: sponge=good. There were rumors of such things as a B. satanis, or Satan's Bolete, but we never saw one around Moscow, and in fact it was treated as something from a horror movie: a bolete that wasn't good!!!

Then we moved to the US. In addition to many other traumatic events (new country, new language, new school, new food, new everything) I also had to learn that there is such a thing as a bitter bolete mushroom. I remember my first or second fall here, bringing home a bunch of mushrooms that looked very much like something from back home. My mother lovingly made soup, which was a beautiful clear color -- the measure of any bolete is whether the broth made from it is clear or dark colored; the porcini makes a clear broth, and other, lesser boletes, produce cloudy and dark soup. We proudly served it for dinner, with sour cream and herbs, tasted the first spoonfull and gagged.

It was unbearably bitter.

We threw the whole thing out. A whole pot of beautiful mushroom soup, brimming with nostalgia.

Seriously? A bolete that you cannot eat? How screwed up is this place anyway?


This experience scared me into not picking anything with a sponge on the bottom ever again. Yes, I probably can tell apart a porcini (although I don't know, maybe this place has bitter porcinis too!), but since I still haven't found a porcini, I've stayed away from the whole bolete family. 

Until today.

While walking the dog in one of the preserves in the Santa Cruz mountains, we stumbled on a big, fat, firm mushroom, with a brown cap, wide bulbous stalk and faintly yellow pores. I had the list of edible local boletes burned into the back of my eyeballs at this point: king bolete, queen bolete, white bolete, and butter bolete. They are distinctive. The first three do not stain blue, and the last one barely stains. They have a distinctive shape and unique coloring. You. Cannot. Confuse. Them. With. Anything.

The thing I found looked like this:

It's a butter bolete. It has to be!
Butter bolete. It has to be. The description reads (I have it memorized, remember): 
  1. cap yellow brown -- check
  2. surface of cup bald, not sticky or slimy -- check, had the pleasant velvety texture of the "good boletes"
  3. underside with a sponge layer, pore surface yellow but bruising blue -- check
  4. stalk thick, upper part might be finely netted -- check, very fine netting, but it was there
  5. flesh thick and dense, pale yellow except at base of stalk, blueing erratically -- yup
  6. flesh at base of stalk tan -- totally
I got one! I got an edible bolete, and a good one at that! 

I proudly brought it home. I sautéed it in butter. It looked and smelled amazing. I tasted it. You know what happens next, right?

It was unbearably bitter. 

You're kidding, right?

I took out my books. The first one had a picture of my mushroom and said B. appendiculatus, butter bolete. The second one too. As did the third one. Finally, I went and got out The Tome. You know things are bad when you start consulting The Tome, or Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, 1000 pages of dense mushrooms classification.

I read the butter bolete description. Yup. Still fits. Then, on the next page, there it was: Boletus "marshii" also known as "Shucks Bolete", a rare, unclassified and unnamed mushroom.

A what now?

"This bolete appears to be unnamed ...  in the vicinity os Santa Cruz, CA ... Distinguished from B. appendiculatus (butter bolete) by a paler cap". 

So I found some as-of-yet not even named and classified mushroom, that only grows around Santa Cruz, and is only described in one of my mushrooms books. And of course, it's bitter. 

I quit. Seriously. I am done. I am going to get my boletes at the farmer's market. Hopefully I won't get the bitter ones from there. Although given my luck, I don't know...


The honey mushrooms are up into back yard again! Getting the vodka ready!

Today's haul (good thing I looked behind the planters, these are almost
too old!)

More coming up in the front yard.
For a long and sordid story of what honey mushrooms are, what they do, and what I do to them, take a look here.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mushroom hunting

It's raining in Northern California! I am not exaggerating much when I say that we haven't seen real good rain storms for close to two years. Last year we had a horrible drought, where it only rained a couple of times in the winter, and it was pretty wimpy rain when it did. As a result last year's mushroom season wasn't. We didn't even get green grass until March, let alone any mushrooms.

This year so far, we've had a couple of nice soakings, so it was time to go out and look. Today was a lovely fall day for a walk in the woods... Wait. No. Actually it was cold, foggy, and a little more than spooky.
Welcome to Middle Earth, I am Treebeard.
I will trip you with my giant roots.
And my minions will feast on your flesh. (When you are alone in a foggy forest,
you can totally imagine the cute little mule deer are after you).
I am not afraid! I am armed with my fancy Swedish mushroom knife. 
According to the various books, blogs, and local members the MushroomTalk mailing list, the chanterelles should be everywhere, and finding them is just a matter of locating the nearest Coast Live Oak, since they like to grow under them. Since mushrooms are small, and Coast Live Oaks are big, one should looks for the oaks first, and then look for mushrooms nearby.

Look at this lovely oak grove. There should be chanterelles everywhere!
Pounds of them! Right???? Why aren't they here?

And that is, in fact, true. Every chanterelle that I have found has been in a close proximity of an oak. Unfortunately the reverse in not true, there are many many oak trees in the Santa Cruz mountains with no chanterelles. On my walk I encountered many lovely oak groves with should be teeming with chanterelles. They were teeming alright, but not with chanterelles. With these obnoxious little brown things.
I don't know what this is. It's some stupid little brown mushroom. It's everywhere
and it is giving me false hope.
The process of foraging chanterelles in Northern California is roughly as follows. You walk along peering intently at the ground for a speck of yellow. After a few minutes you get dizzy and get a headache.
Do you see the mushroom? Right. Nether do I. Because it's not there.
You see a flash of yellow, and your heart skips. You bend down, only to discover that it was a leaf. You stare at the ground some more. Another flash of yellow, another ray of hope, another leaf. Another flash of yellow... well, at least my quads are getting good exercise.

Once in a while, if you locate the correct live oak tree, and stare at the correct patch of ground under it, you see this:
One of these yellow spots is not a leaf. Can you
tell which one? Ow, my eyes are bleeding.
Even more exciting is the hunt for the "subterranean" chanterelles. In places where the leaf litter is very deep, the mushrooms don't often poke through at all. They just create a raised bump, affectionately known as a "shrump". If you thought "is it a leaf" game is exciting, the "what's under the bump" game is even more fun. It's kind of like opening a present. What's under there? A juicy chanterelle? Some other mushroom? A pissed off gopher ready to bite off your finger? Add to it the feeling that you are walking on a mine field (omg, what if I an squashing a chanterelle right now!!!), the excitement is unbearable.

Win! This guy was completely covered, and only meticulous
poking at every suspicious looking bump in a known chanterelle-
producing area was the reason I even found it.
Unfortunately, for every chanterelle-containing bump, most are either just leaf clumps, or contain some useless inedible mushroom like the various russulas. 

Not win! But pretty. This is a russula. 
In the end, unless you know some really good spots (which I don't), mushroom hunting is more of a walk in the woods with an occasional random reward than an actual food-gathering operation. I did get enough for a meal, I did get some good exercise, and maybe next time I'll find the motherlode of all chanterelle spots. Or maybe I should just teach one of my dogs to hunt them for me. I even know a good  class for that.
Yes I could have gotten mushrooms from Whole Foods in a tenth of the time it
took to find these. It's the principle of the matter though!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Polly the Entertainer

Last week Miss P and I went to Nick's preschool. Polly was a star. She sat nicely while being petted, played "find the glove" game with the kids, and jumped over the bars that the kids held for her. The kids were very impressed.

Nick introducing Polly.

Nick showing the kids how to pet the dog.
The hand in the mouth is me feeding her cookies.

Leading out


More over!

The teachers were most impressed that my dog will do a down/stay when I tell her. While that's pretty cool, I have to say that the fact that they can get 26 four year olds to sit quietly, take turns and follow directions is way cooler.

One of the teachers asked why I didn't bring Kipling too. Nick talks about Kipling all the time, so the teachers were eager to meet him. I called Nick over and pointed to a giant scratch he had on his cheek.
Me: "Nicholas, tell Miss Julie how you got this ouchie."
Nick: "Kipper pushed me, and then he stepped on my face." (in Kip's defense they were playing "fight the creature", which involves them jumping on each other)
Teacher: "Ok, I understand, thank you for not bringing Kipper to school, Nicholas"
Maybe next year... 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

The mushrooms are here!

After last year's total mushrooming disaster, Kipling and I were excited to find these beauties today:
Kip's contribution to this endeavor was to stop and sniff at a strategic location right next to the chanterelles, which made me stop and stare at the ground for a long time, and notice the raised clumps of leaf litter and dirt hiding the mushrooms.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kids these days

Conversation this morning:

Nick: Daddy when you were a kid, did you like "Planes" (ed: Disney Movie)?
Kostadis: They didn't have "Planes" when I was a kid.
Nick: No, on your iPad, did you like "Planes" on your iPad when you were a kid?
Kostadis: I didn't have an iPad when I was a kid.
Nick: *stunned silence*

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Athens Marathon

Nick has now crossed the finish line of the Athens Marathon twice. That's two more times than me and one less than Kostadis.

I feel the pressure, somehow...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rollerblading update

Nick's been using his rollerblades for several days now. I no longer need M&M's to get him to skate, and today he was able to skate with a puck and stick.

And a video!
I declare rollerblade training a success!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nick rollerblading

We bought Nick his first pair of "real" rollerblades. They are the BladerRunner brand that adjust several sizes so that I don't have to get a new pair next week when the kid's feet grow.

Fully padded!

Nick is a little intimidated by them, since they are big and heavy and roll really well (they have ABEC 3 bearings, which is fancier than what I have on my own skates). He was happy to roll along if I held his hand, but he was reluctant to let go and skate on his own, so I had to come up with creative ways to motivate him to practice.

I considered several obvious things first.
  1. Assuming he'll just be so happy with his new purchase that he'll practice on his own.
    That ended after the first splat on the pavement.
  2. Guilt tripping him to practice because "I got you this new toy and you should play with it".
    No I didn't even try that one, because, well, no.
  3. Telling him "if you practice, you'll be better at ice skating, and they will let you have a puck and stick". While he admitted that he wants a puck and stick, that was not enough to motivate more than one trip up and down the driveway.
  4. Jumping up and down, playing chase games, cheerleading and yelling "yay good job" for every single step.
    That worked better than everything else to far, but I was getting a harder workout than the kid, which admittedly was not the intended purpose of this acquisition.
As Denise Fenzi always says "it's not a motivator if they don't want it".  Now they in her case applies to dogs, but why should it be any different with my four year old.

Clearly my motivators were not good enough to convince him to keep trying in spite of landing on his butt every few minutes. So that lead me to my final solution: I got out a bunch of cones and baited them with M&M's. Voila: he's skating, he's happy, he doesn't mind that he ends up hitting the pavement every few minutes, doesn't whine for me to help him get up, and the occasional candy keeps his blood sugar up.

Once he gets better at the mechanics, can go faster without expending as much effort, and his confidence grows, he'll enjoy the process for its own sake (because the kid is a speed junkie), but for now, the dog training approach works wonders.

As a bonus, here's a video of Nick riding his big boy bike. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Kipling at the Baylands

I guess the love of mud is a family trait. I did, unfortunately, miss the beginning where he covered himself head to toe in dirt.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When did my puppy get so big?

Holey moley, people! Who's this giant dog in front?


He still weighs less than Polly. Because Polly has muscles. And he just has legs.

Took THEM for a hike today.

Starting to look like fall.
1.5 miles with a decent climb in the middle and barely any whining from the two-legged hiker.

If you are not the lead husky, the view never changes.

The lead husky.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kipling swimming at the baylands

Conversation with the vet yesterday:
Dr Sams: Ok, he's cleared to be off leash some when you hike with him.
Me: Umm, he's a 9 month old labrador puppy. He has no brains. He does not get to go off leash because he doesn't come back.
Dr Sams: Um. Well. Ok. So, if you were to take him to the beach, and if he seems like he's behaving, you can let him off leash.
Kipling, did you pay off the vet to say that?

We didn't go to the beach, but we did go to the Baylands to swim. And Kip was let off leash, that is until he decided to run off and roll in the dry foxtails. That was the end of the off-leash adventure, but at least we followed doctor's orders.

I am pleased that the dog that thought deep water eats puppies went from this:

What is this stuff? Don't think I want to go in there! 

to this:

Maturity is an amazing thing. I figure three more years, and he can be allowed off leash when hiking too. His elbows have plenty of time to heal before then!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Santa Cruz

What can be better than poking sea anemones with a piece of seagrass to make them close.
Does this qualify as "harassing wildlife"?
Well, jumping into a giant hole in the sand might be better.
Wheeee! (followed by Splat!)
Or chasing seagulls.
Ok, this is definitely "harassing wildlife". But the wildlife deserves it
after it stole a whole bag of salami from our lunch box.
Lovely day at the Natural Bridges State Beach today. Full set of pictures in on smugmug.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Finding his inner labrador

When I first introduced Kip to the pool at about five months of age, he was not very enthusiastic about it. He swam when I put him in, and I even clickered him to get onto the second step with me, but he refused to actually get into the water completely by himself.

With Polly, teaching her to swim took exactly 5 minutes. I went to the Baylands, found a place where the water entry was shallow, and thew BALL into the water. Polly proceeded to pitch a 5 minute screaming fit (her solution to most problems in those days) on the bank, and when it became clear that I am not going to get BALL for her, she finally went in herself, swam out and brought it back. Swim education done.

Kip does not have that strong of a ball drive, so this method ended up in him giving me a look of utter disappointment ("how could you possibly be so careless as to throw the ball somewhere I cannot get it") and walking away from the water to go sniff stuff. So I let it go for a while and decided to deal with it later. I don't know if it's age, or the fact that he does underwater treadmill for his rehab, but suddenly he decided that swimming is the best thing ever, and retrieving bumpers from the pool is his life's work.

Today I let him swim for 15 minutes and then took him home, since we are still working on building his fitness and I don't want to let him overdo it. Walking back to the car, I had a whining and pulling (backwards) maniac that tried to do everything to get me to turn around and let him back into the water. Swim education done with this one too. Now let's work on impulse control and loose leash walking, yes?

Stop taking pictures of me. My bumper is in the pool. I need to get it.
Swim video. The horrible snorting seems to be a family trait. As is the mouthing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dog gym

My living room is slowly turning into a doggie gym. There's balance balls, paw pads, and target mats everywhere. On the plus side, the kid finds it extremely amusing and when I am not working with the dogs sets up intricate obstacle courses with all the equipment.

Kipling's PT this week is to build up strength on his right side by forcing him to stretch for his handshakes. After some thought I decided that the best way to do that is to teach him to paw target a stick and then just move the stick around. This turned out to actually achieve two goals:

1. I don't have to bend down to present my hand for the handshake
2. He cannot rest his paw on my hand after he lifts it, making him work harder

Feeling pretty proud of myself for figuring this out. Here's a video of the leg lifts. He's on a platform again to prevent forward creep, hip rolling, and other undesirable behaviors.

Next thing I am supposed to do is tie a weight (sock with some quarters) to his right leg and make him do leg lifts with it. I am sure he'll be thrilled!

We are also progressing towards "back paws on the disk, front paws on targets" game.

Figmageddon is here. Plz send hlp!

Fig season is here. Yay!

Four years ago we planted a Mission Fig in the back yard. That was, as Nick likes to say "a good idea". It's productive, low maintenance, grows fast, doesn't need a lot of water, and doesn't get affected by our ever-present oak-root fungus. A less good idea was never trimming it. I don't think pruning shears ever touched a single branch of this tree for all four years we've had it.

As a result, what started out like this:

Fig tree at one year old. So cute and spindly.

Progressed to this:

The tree a year and a half later. Still cute, but you can see signs
of impending disaster. Might have been a good year to shape
it a little bit...

And now looks like this:
Oh, you want your yard back? Well, too bad, now I live here.
Yes, this is a four and a half year old Mission Fig. The fence behind it is
seven feet, so I estimate the tree is about 14 feet now. Western Gardens book
says Mission Figs can grow to 30'. Anybody have a really tall ladder?
The tree has now taken over half of my garden space. There are two planter beds underneath the branches that you cannot see, one has a very sad zucchini that is growing sideways to get some light, and the other had European strawberries, which threw in the towel when they didn't see sunlight for a month.

Heeeeelp meeeeee!

But on the plus side, the tree produces figs. Lots and lots and lots of them. Starting around mid-August the tree feeds the resident humans, dogs, squirrels, chickens, Mr. Possum, rats, and who-knows-what-else that comes into my yard.


Whatever doesn't get eaten, falls down a makes a mess. We pick the ripe fruit every other day, just to stay ahead.

The helper. The other reason I don't trim the tree is that
it's super nice for climbing right now. 

Looking for figs is a very serious job.
We picked about 14 lbs today, and I didn't even get to the high branches. I figure the squirrels can have those for now, mostly because I cannot find a way to fit a ladder into the whole mess.

We picked two baskets like this.
Since there's no way we can eat 14 lbs of figs in two days, these are going to go into the dehydrator. The Triathlete uses them for snacks when he's out training for hours.

Stacked in the dehydrator. I have four trays, but they don't all fit.

Whatever didn't fit will dry out in the sun for a while.
The extras.

About 12 hours in the dehydrator, and it's done. Triathlete Snacks are ready.

Yesterday's batch dehydrated. The Triathlete has been
partaking of this already, the bowl was full last night.

The tree is mostly clear for now. More figs are due tomorrow though. It's Figmageddon out here. Help!

Oh, and that whole thing in the Bible about Adam covering himself with a fig leaf. Could. Not. Have. Happened. I crawled in the tree for an hour today, and my arms and face are covered with an itchy rash. Fig leaves are rough and abrasive. And fig sap is an irritant. A fig leaf brushing against bare skin feels like rubbing yourself with acid-covered sandpaper. No man would have that anywhere near his "special" parts.

You're going to put this WHERE?