Sunday, June 26, 2011

Finally working!

I am very happy to share with you that I have finally started my bus driver training. It felt like it took ages to go though the required physical and paperwork that was required before I could be a Zoo employee again, but now the work days have finally arrived! On Tuesday of last week I drove the bus for the first time. I'll have to get a picture for a later post so you know just how giant these buses are -- 41' 8'' long, 14' 8'' tall, and about 18,000 pounds when empty. With guests in the 96 seats it weighs significantly more. Today marked my third day of driver training, and while I'm not yet doing any narrating or carrying passengers, I get more comfortable behind the wheel with every circuit of the Zoo.

I had Friday off from work and took advantage of the time to make a visit to SeaWorld with my friend Heather. Our number one priority was visiting the new sea turtle exhibit. I enjoyed seeing the different green and black sea turtles swimming around the large aquarium, and there is an interactive area that kids seem to enjoy. We also saw the new Shamu show, called One World. I wasn't exactly impressed by it, but where else can you see whales jump and splash about? Oh yeah, in the wild. Like years ago when our ferry in the San Juans stopped as a pod swam past us, or when my family watched a pod feed off of Iceberg Point on Lopez Island. I think zoological gardens are great for conservation and education about species, but having seen orcas in the wild, I prefer that experience more.  

Though very small and easily overlooked, one of my favorite animals to check out any time I'm in a zoological facility is the poison dart frog. I have had an affinity for frogs since childhood, and seeing those brightly-colored amphibians always gives me a happy little tingle. Though the light wasn't very good I managed to get a couple of good shots of that one bright yellow frog.

And I have some good news to report! The little hummingbird that I've had my eye on in the Hummingbird Aviary did have one chick when I stopped by to look yesterday. When I first entered the aviary she wasn't sitting on the nest and I was worried something was wrong. My worry grew deeper as I sat there for what seemed like forever before the mother returned to the nest. When she finally did return, she nestled right in and fed the chick. Hopefully there will be more growth in the days to come!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pacific Southwest Railway Museum

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to drive inland from San Diego and visit the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum ( in Campo, California. I was tagging along with my friend Heather who volunteers at the museum and invited me along for the day. After helping with a little bit of work I hopped the 11:00 train to the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a 12 mile trip that takes about an hour as the train pulls you through the desert.

In the past the train has gone into Mexico--my family and I actually visited Tecate on a train from the museum about 10 years ago. About 18 months ago an arsonist set a fire inside one of the tunnels that the train crossed through in Mexico, and it burned strong enough that the tunnel caved in. Now the train only goes as far as the trestle that you have to cross just before entering Mexico, then stops and reverses to head back to the museum. One of the most outstanding things you could see from the train is the border fence. It looks imposing, even from a distance.

The cars definitely had an old time feel. This is a commuter car, not meant for long-distance travel, but the small luggage racks above still illustrate a difference in the size of our baggage between past and present.

The museum's Display Building is home to a number of other cars that visitors are free to explore. The hallways are narrow, kitchens tight, and bathrooms miniaturized. I have traveled on trains a couple of times, and it seems like everything has gotten a bit bigger for contemporary times. There are a lot of little details to notice in the old trains. These light switches, for example.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mixed Fruit Crumble

Last week I trusted my mouth to one of San Diego's great periodontists and had a gingival graft done on one of my lower central incisors. I'll spare you the gory details. Post-procedure I'm trying to treat my gums as nicely as possible to make sure that the graft takes and the area they took it from heals well. This means eating a lot of soft foods. What's a good way to make your favorite fruits soft? Cook 'em. So that's just what I did. Still having tons of berries in our fridge I had to find something to do with them before they pass their prime. Tonight's solution: a mixed fruit crumble.

I started by cutting up 2 plums and 2 nectarines, and mixing them with 6 ounces of blueberries and about 1/8 cup of sugar. I always try to use as little sugar as possible. Since there are only 2 of us in this house, I make a small batch. The cute little Pyrex I was using is only about 5 inches in diameter.

Then I mixed together my topping (1-2 tablespoons butter with about 1/3 cup flour and a few tablespoons of both white and brown sugar) and spread it over the fruit. The whole thing went into a 350 degree oven and baked for about 40 minutes. You know it's done when the fruit is bubbling.

I took a healthy serving of crumble alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The flavors went very well together--I think if it was made of only blueberries it would have been a little overpowering. It was so good I had to go back for more (hey, I've been living on rice, cottage cheese, mango smoothie juice, and jello). After being adamantly against pies for many years, this whole phenomenon of baking fruits until they're warm and soft is really starting to click with me. We do have some pears ripening on the counter...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My favorite quesadilla!

Three years ago, during my first summer as an intern at the San Diego Zoo, my friend Ben and I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Hillcrest called Baja Betty's. After perusing the menu it turned out that one of my vegetarian options was a mushroom quesadilla. Sounds simple, right? It changed my life. A simple combination of cheese and mushrooms, topped with a little bit of sour cream and guacamole, I ate the whole thing and could hardly walk home afterwards.  It was fantastic. Before that night, I had a “meh” relationship with mushrooms—they weren’t something I ate very often, or very much of. After that night they became one of my kitchen cornerstones!  One of my favorite super simple things to eat is a piece of whole wheat toast topped with mushrooms that have been sautéed with garlic and crushed red pepper with mozzarella cheese melted on top. I love the meaty flavor that mushrooms provide, and add them to stir fries, pasta, almost anything!
So today I’m reminiscing with a mushroom quesadilla.

It's incredibly easy. Unless I'm feeling lazy, I saute the mushrooms ahead of time. This enhances their meaty flavor and shrinks them down, so you can fit more mushrooms in the quesadilla! Then I tossed a tortilla in my frying pan, sprinkled grated monterey jack cheese on top, and let it melt. When the cheese had melted a little bit I lay the mushrooms on, put the topper tortilla on, and give everything a good squish together. I then flip it over and let the tortilla crisp up. Microwave quesadilla have nothing on the ones you make on the stove! I love the crispness the tortillas get when you cook them in a frying pan.

And there you have it. When the cheese is well melted and the tortillas nice and crispy on the outside, slide the completed little masterpiece onto a place and cut up. I added some mashed avocado and salsa to my plate, then took lunch out to the patio where I immediately scarfed it down. I'm thinking this lunch may see an encore presentation tomorrow.

Your quote for the day!

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake...” -Sir Francis Bacon

While it's a little out of season--my snowflakes would be melting fast in the 70-degree temps of San diego--this quote reminds me that every day should be used to the fullest!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lemon Blueberry Scones

I think it is impossible to live in Southern California and not know someone with a lemon tree.  After doing some yard work for a friend this week, I came home with a bag of lemons. The lemons, combined with the glut of cheap berries available at the grocery store, inspired me to make a lemon blueberry scone.

2 cups all purpose flour
3 Tbl sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
6 Tbl cold butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1 cup fresh blueberries

The plan:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Begin by combining the dry ingredients. Mix the cubed butter into the dry ingredients, squishing with your fingers to integrate it into the flour until the mixture is coarse. Then add the milk, lemon juice, and lemon zest. When all the liquid has been incorporated, turn onto a board to knead. Press the dough flat and sprinkle the blueberries on top, then carefully knead the berries in. 
Split dough into two balls, then divide each ball into 4 scones about 3/4 inch thick. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes, until slightly brown on top.

And it never hurts to coordinate your apron with your eyes. :)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Baked Oatmeal!

First for something completely unrelated: The Zoo finally called me this morning with a job offer! This means that when the next person inevitably asks, "Have you heard from the zoo yet?" I can give them the "Yes!" that everyone's been waiting for! I have a physical scheduled for Friday, so hopefully it won't be too long after that before I am working!

Now, back to the weekend. Saturday and Sunday were very busy as we celebrated Aunt Doris's birthday. Saturday we went out for lunch with some friends, and on Sunday a few other people came over for cake. My Aunt Barbara was staying with us for the occasion, and I saw it as a great opportunity to break out the Baked Oatmeal recipe from Super Natural Every Day. The recipe is supposed to serve a hearty breakfast for 6, so making it for just 1 seemed absolutely crazy! Knowing that we'd be 3 for breakfast on Sunday, I decided I would put it together for myself and the ladies. I'll admit, I was skeptical. While I often eat oatmeal for breakfast, there's something about the texture that doesn't really appeal to me. This baked oatmeal, however, is wonderfully different than the sometimes soupy bowl of oats that your microwave can produce.

To begin, mix together the dry ingredients: 2 cups old fashioned oatmeal, 1/4 cup toasted walnut pieces, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Prepare your greased 8x8 baking dish: 2 bananas, sliced 1/2 inch thick make the bottom layer and 2/3 to 3/4 cup blueberries scattered on top of the banana. You then spread the oat mixture over the fruit, making a nice even layer. I found that the sugar and cinnamon were at the bottom of the bowl, and the oats on top, so I did my best to make sure that I spread everything evenly instead of dumping cinnamon and sugar on one side of the dish and oats on the other. The oat mixture is then topped with about 1/2 cup of blueberries and 1/4 cup toasted walnut pieces.You then pour over the liquid.

The liquid mix is 2 cups milk, 1 egg, 2 teaspoons vanilla, and 1/5 teaspoons melted butter. Heidi's recipe says to give the dish a bang on the counter to make sure the milk gets into all the little nooks and crannies. While I wasn't sure this would help, it seemed to, as a few bubbles did escape from the oats when I did my counter tap.

Then the whole concoction gets baked at 375 F for 35 to 45 minutes--mine went closer to 45.
Serve it up in individual bowls and enjoy! I'm very happy to say this one was a success for me. When I first told Aunt Doris I wanted to make baked oatmeal her eyes bugged out a little as she looked at me in what appeared to be disbelief. Really, she had no idea what she was in for. When the oatmeal she was served was sweet and embellished with plenty of fruit, it became clear that this wasn't the plain bowl of oatmeal that she'd been expecting. This was oatmeal done right!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Zucchini Pasta

Tonight I made a delicious bowl of pasta for myself. I picked up a couple of zucchini on sale at Henry's, intent on coming up with something to do with them. In trying to think a little more outside the box than stir fry I came across a perfect recipe in Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day. The Summer Linguine recipe (p. 137) yielded inspiration for my take on summer squash-laden pasta. According to Heidi's notes on her recipe, it was the first to be set aside for the cookbook, and I can kind of see why. With just a few ingredients, the usually bland zucchini becomes a good companion for a bowl of pasta noodles. I only had about half of the ingredients that the original recipe called for, so I improvised with some of my own additions, and made it in a much smaller portion since I was only cooking for one.

The fun begins with grating a small-medium zucchini into a colander and sprinkling it with salt so it'll release some of its moisture. You let it drain for at least 10 minutes, which is about as long as boiling the water for the pasta takes, so things work out perfectly. Every few minutes I'd give the grated zucchini a squish with a fork to press some water out.

Rummaging through the kitchen produced a package of pretty little angel hair nests. The one I used tonight contained beet, giving it a nice pink color when cooked. This is only about 1 ounce of noodles.

Shortly before putting the pasta in the boiling water that I had prepared for it I sauteed a thinly sliced mushroom. When the mushroom was pretty well cooked, I added the shredded zucchini and a little bit of oil. This mix needs to cook until the zucchini is tender, which doesn't take too long. When it was getting close to done I dropped the pasta into the boiling water--it only took 2 minutes to cook.

And voila, the finished product! After draining the pasta I added it to the pan that the zucchini had been cooking in, mixed everything together, and added a little bit of butter. Once it was in my bowl I topped the pasta with a sprinkle of caramelized onions left over from this morning and some feta cheese. It was so good!

Zucchini Pasta
1 small-medium zucchini, grated
1 tsp salt
1 mushroom, halved and thinly sliced.
oil as needed
1 ounce angel hair pasta
feta cheese

1. Begin by grating the zucchini into a colander. Sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 10+ minutes, pressing moisture out.
2. Bring water to a boil, heat up a pan to saute mushroom in.
3. Cook mushroom to desired tenderness on medium heat, then add shredded zucchini and 1 tsp oil to pan.
4. A couple of minutes into the zucchini cooking, add angel hair pasta to boiling water. If using a thicker pasta, plan accordingly so that your pasta is finished cooking before zucchini is tender.
5. When pasta is al dente, drain and add to pan with zucchini. Mix everything together, adding a little bit of butter if desired.
6. Transfer to serving bowl, top with feta cheese.

Morning in the Garden

Today I finally finished working in the back garden bed. I'd planted impatiens last week, and today finished off the job by adding some dianthus and moving a few things to sunnier spots. When everyone was planted I put a good layer of bark down, giving it a great finished look.
The most incredible thing happened when I was watering everything in. As I stood holding the hose, a hummingbird flew up and took a shower! When it first flew toward me I thought it was coming over to take a look at the brightly colored flowers, until it hovered right above the water that was flowing from the hose nozzle. I did my best not to move, and stared in wonder as the little bird dipped down so that her feet and belly were hit by the water, then flew up to hover above the stream, before dipping down into the spray again. She did this a few times, dipping down so that the water hit the lower half of her body, before flying back up. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I've had in a long time.

My morning of power gardening started out with a pretty good breakfast, too. Lately I've been making an egg in toast for breakfast, cooking it so that the yolk is hard, and smothering the whole thing with cottage cheese when I sit down to eat it. Today I was having a craving for caramelized onions, so spent some time concocting a caramelized onion and mushroom frittata.
It was really simple. I mixed up 1 whole egg and 2 egg whites and poured them in a small frying pan. When the eggs were just about set I put the caramelized onions, cooked mushrooms, and feta cheese on top. A few minutes of letting the egg finish cooking and melting the cheese, and I slid it on to my plate. My frittata, along with a cup full of fresh cherries and fresh pitcher of iced tea, made for a very nice breakfast.