Archive for October, 2015


A Hispaniola-Inspired Halloween Soup

Author: Meera, October 31, 2015
Pumpkins are quintisenstially asociated with autumn

Pumpkins are quintessentially associated with autumn

 

 

 

My husband hails from the Dominican Republic, located on the east side of Hispaniola. Haiti occupies the west side of the Caribbean island. In the DR (as it is commonly called), Halloween today is celebrated much like it is in the United States. But it hasn’t always been that way.

 

 

Some who were born in the Caribbean do not celebrate Halloween, primarily because of religious convictions and a belief that Halloween has no roots in the history, cultural traditions, or even relevance to African-Caribbean folklore. But others have accepted the holiday and enjoy its fun-loving activities such as cavorting in costumes, consuming candy, and carving pumpkins.

 

 

As for superstitions in the DR, there are many. Did you know, for example, that a pregnant woman should not go to the ocean? I know, it seems a little strange since DR women live on an island surrounded by ocean. Another superstition is that a toddler who looks into a mirror will never speak (also strange since many youngsters in the DR today are educated as bilingual). There are witches spells, too. And ghosts and goblins abound. All part of the fun.

 

 

When my husband Carlos was growing up in the DR, Halloween wasn’t celebrated, however, Dominicanos did celebrate the Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) with sugar skulls, festively painted. The holiday honored one’s loved ones who’d passed away and their ancestors.

 

 

At Sagrada, in Oakland, sugar skull mold, icing colors, meringue powder, and more can be purchased with directions for making those treats. See, https://www.facebook.com/SAGRADA-Sacred-Arts-121760811179202/timeline/

 

 

 

If you’re not into whipping up a batch of sugar skulls, how about a pumpkin soup? Rich and complex with Dominican flavors, it’s a dish my husband fondly recalls from the days around Halloween/Day of the Death during his childhood. A bowl of tasty, nourishing soup can fortify the entire family before they don their costumes and head out for a little Halloween fun.

 

 

 

Dominican Pumpkin Soup

 

 

Ingredients:

 

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup chopped onion

3 garlic cloves, minced

3 cups pumpkin puree (canned pumpkin may be used or West Indian pumpkin, calabaza)

2 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 1/2 cups unsweetened canned coconut milk

 

 

Directions:

 

Melt the butter in a large cooking pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until onions are golden brown.

Add pumpkin puree, chicken broth, allspice, and crushed red pepper.

Bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat.

Let simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove from heat and puree the soup in a blender (do this in batches).

Return to pureed soup to the cooking pot.

Add the brown sugar and the coconut milk in batches of 1/2 cup each time until the desired consistency has been achieved.

Season with salt and pepper, according to taste. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

 

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Resources to Assist Pet Owners in Tough Times

Author: Meera, October 29, 2015

I always learn a lot from my regular visits to the Contra Costa County Animal Shelter. I was surprised to learn that the shelter doesn’t take in just dogs and cats but also chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits, and other animals.

 

Moose is good-looking and high maintenance, like some guys I used to know

Moose isn’t a shelter animal but a very pampered pet belonging to my daughter’s family–some dogs in Contra Costa County are not so fortunate

 

 

But most alarming for me was learning that some people in our current economy are having trouble paying for their pets’ required shots or annual license renewal. Others, for a variety of reasons, may need food for their pets. In tough times, pets can suffer, too.

 

 

Thanks to generous donations within Contra Costa County, the shelter is happy to share (when available) the pet food that is donated. That said, the shelter urges all pet owners to have backup plans in case the shelter’s donated supplies are running low.

 

 

Short-hair dogs may not be hypoallergenic

This little cutie is one at the shelter I fell in love with; I picked out a name, returned to adopt, and someone had already claimed him

 

 

If you are a pet owner needing assistance with getting pet food and your Plan A didn’t work out, you might consider the following Plan-B, Plan-C, and Plan-D.

 

 

Plan-B:  Contra Costa Humane Society Ani-meals Program

Phone: (925) 676-7543 or 1 (800) 870-3663

 

 

Plan-C: Tony LaRussa’s ARF Food Relief Program

Phone (925) 256-1273, ext. 463; website: http://www.arf.net/animal-programs/foodshare

The ARF program also helps people in their program with spay and neuter services.

 

 

Plan-D: Furry Friends Food Relief Program: 

Phone (925) 240-3178; website: http://www.furryfriendsfoodre.wix.com/fffr

 

If you love animals and would like to help families and their pets who might be struggling, consider donating money, pet food, or your time to your local animal shelter. Shelter staff members and volunteers give phenomenal care to the creatures who cannot fend for themselves.

 

 

 

The shelter will hold the animals for a while or relocate them with rescue organizations or find them temporary foster homes. The best outcome is adoption into a forever family home. In Contra Costa County, people with questions about food distribution programs can call the Humane Education Department at (925)-335-8340.

 

 

 

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Celebrating the Season of Apples

Author: Meera, October 27, 2015

It’s that time of year when the scents of cinnamon and apple potpourri mingle with hot mulled cider. Thank you, Johnny Appleseed.

 

Or should I say, thank you, John Chapman (1174-1845). Born in Leominster, Massachusetts, Chapman planted apple orchards on lands in the northeastern and mid-western parts of the United States, returning after several years to sell those orchards after they were producing.

 

He also gave away many trees and seeds. But he didn’t believe in grafting, and the trees he planted bore apples more suited to cider. See, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/real-johnny-appleseed-brought-applesand-booze-american-frontier-180953263/?no-ist

 

 

It was John Chapman’s father Nathaniel–a farmer–who encouraged his son to become an orchardist.  John planted more than a few orchards around the Midwest on lands he bought, owned, and sold. His life gave rise to the folk tradition of Johnny Appleseed. Today, there are many festivals that honor his life and work as well as a U. S. postage stamp.

 

 

 

Cox orange pippin apples in a two-year-old tree

Cox orange pippin apple on a two-year-old tree

 

 

 

Today, you don’t need a lot of land to grow an apple tree or two. Even a small piece of land can accommodate the fruit tree, thanks to the availability of dwarf and semi-dwarf varietals. Apartment dwellers and people who have limited space can even espalier an apple tree against a wall.

 

On the Henny Penny Farmette, we are growing the thin-skinned Cox Orange Pippin dessert apple, among others. This late-season varietal was first grown in 1825 in Colnbrook in Buckinghamshire, England. The flesh is orangey-red and the flavor is sweet and nutty. These apples can be eaten fresh, used in recipes, or made into cider.

 

If you have some cider on hand and would like to create the mulled apple cider flavor,  add a couple of cinnamon sticks, a teaspoon each of whole cloves and allspice with a half-gallon of cider and heat in a saucepan. Add a little orange juice or some slices of orange. After simmering for 8 to 10 minutes, strain the mulled cider into mugs. Consider making a batch of farmhouse doughnuts to accompany the cider.

 

FARMHOUSE DOUGHNUTS

 

Ingredients:

 

1 pkg. yeast

 

1 cup lukewarm milk

 

1/2 teaspoon salt

 

31/2 cups flour

 

1/4 cup canola oil, plus oil for frying

 

1 cup brown sugar

 

2 eggs, well beaten

 

3/4 teaspoon nutmeg

 

 

Directions:

 

Mix together the yeast and milk in a small bowl.

 

Combine flour with salt in a large bowl.

 

Add the yeast and milk to the flour and salt mixture and beat well.

 

Let the mixture rise for one-half hour.

 

Add all the other ingredients and beat well again.

 

Let rise for one hour.

 

Punch down the dough. If it appears too soft to roll out, add more flour.

 

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board and let the dough rest for ten minutes.

 

Divide the dough in half. Roll one section of dough out to 1/2 inch thickness and cut with a doughnut cutter. Repeat the process for the other half of the dough.

 

Let the doughnuts rise for about an hour; fry in oil at 360 degrees Fahrenheit. When the doughnut has turned brown, flip over. Take care not to burn.

 

Remove from doughnuts from hot oil and drain on paper towels.

 

Place doughnuts in a bag with granulated sugar and shake to coat. Makes approximately two dozen doughnuts and holes.

 

 

 

 

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Here’s to Reconnecting with Old Friends

Author: Meera, October 23, 2015
Seated is Paula Munier, literary agent with Talcott-Notch. L to R: Meera Lester, Indi Zeleny, and John Waters.

Seated is Paula Munier, literary agent with Talcott-Notch who sold my book, A BEELINE TO MURDER. L to R: Meera Lester, Indi Zeleny, and John Waters.

 

 

 

How many years of continuous relationship have you had with your oldest friends? Mine go back to 1983 when my then husband Steve and I established Writers Connection, a Bay Area organization for writers. It was a place to connect with publishing professionals and writing teachers. One of the people I connected with back then has long been a friend and now she’s my literary agent.

 

Paula Munier flew from the Boston area to the West Coast to conduct a writers retreat in Pacific Grove. A couple of my Scribe Tribe friends and I drove down the California coast to meet her for a lovely lunch and a walk on the beach. It turned into an impromptu book signing for me as I had packed a few copies of my debut novel, A BEELINE TO MURDER, in my tote bag.

 

We had a lovely visit, sharing dreams of writing goals, projects, and new books and authors we love.

 

The October weather could not have been more beautiful. The Pacific Ocean sparkled blue as ever, matching the sky. The fog had moved back to the horizon, and the afternoon was warm and balmy. What a perfect day to reconnect with old friends. I hope they walk the rest of this life with me as joyful, healthy, and intellectually inspiring as they all are now.

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Catch Me if You Can

Author: Meera, October 20, 2015

Tomorrow, the seat of my pants will be in the seat of a car for eight hours. The trip down south is to meet with my agent–the ever brilliant and beautiful Paula Munier who, in fact, sold not only my first novel but the entire series. She’s flying in from New England to speak at a conference. I’m sure she’ll enjoy the weather–the Pacific coast is warm and beautiful this time of year.

 

 

As my virtual book tour for A BEELINE TO MURDER soon will draw to a close, I’m getting reading for my other scheduled book giveaways and promos. I’ll keep you posted on those as well as book parties and public appearances.

 

If you have limited space, use herbs in your landscaping like this Spanish lavender or grow them in pots on the patio or windowsill

Bees love all types of lavender, including the Spanish lavender pictured here. Plant it in pots, in a garden, or in a window box.

 

 

First up is the Mini-makers Fair at Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Walnut Creek November 6, 7, and 8. I’ll be taking the 5:00 p.m. slot. I’ll be demonstrating how to make herb sachets, discussing favorite foods of honeybees, and signing copies of my debut novel. Stop by and say hi.

 

 

Check back here for more updates through November and December.

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Visit a Farm in the Fall For a U-Pick Experience

Author: Meera, October 19, 2015

The Henny Penny Farmette is about a half hour away from Brentwood. There are at least fifty farms in and around Brentwood that offer families a U-Pick experience.  The city is located in the eastern region of the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

 

Although Brentwood has had a post office since 1878, the city today is largely residential. That said, there are many actively producing farms and preserved lands around the pockets of community. The area has a semi-arid, Mediterranean climate and is situated on the alluvial plain of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

 

 

Bartlett summer pears

To bring out the maximum sweetness of pears, place them in a paper bag for two days in a kitchen cupboard

 

 

Many of the farms permit family picking of produce and tree crops. Some of the crops available for picking through October include apples, corn, figs, green beans, onions, peppers, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, pumpkins, squash, strawberries, and tomatoes. Additionally, walnuts, pistachios, and almonds are available year-round at some of the farm stands. There are also wineries and vineyards in the region.

 

 

 

As you drive around the area, look for a Brentwood Harvest Time sign as an indicator for a farm. There will be a number on the sign that coordinates to a name of a farm with that same number on a handily map that you can get at http://www.harvest4you.com. In July, the city hosts a harvest festival for the entire family. It features tractor rides and corn shucking and eating contests, among other activities.

 

 

Butternut squash is and old garden favorite and stores well

Butternut squash is and old garden favorite and stores well

 

 

Finally, if Christmas at your house wouldn’t be the same without a live tree, you can find Christmas tree farms in and around Brentwood as well on the Harvest4you.com website. Check it out.

 

 

U-pick guidelines as listed on the map include the following rules.

1. No climbing or damaging trees

2. Children are not allowed on ladders.

3. You must buy what you pick.

4. Check produce for ripeness before picking it.

5. Do not throw fruit.

6. Do not litter.

 

 

 

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Detecting and Dealing with Robber Bees and Wasps

Author: Meera, October 13, 2015

In autumn when there are few nectar sources for the bees, you might see more bees out looking for food. Wasps will be about, too, since their queens must hibernate over the winter and will leave the colony; itself collapses. This means that lots of bees are looking for shrinking nectar sources. Stealing honey from a neighbor’s hive is a distinct possibility.

 

 

How will you know that bees and/or wasps are attempting to invade your hives? Robber bees and wasps will not fly directly in or the resident bees will attack. Instead, the robbers will approach from the sides. They may also fly in a zigzag pattern.

 

 

We built a three-sided bee house to hold our hives. The rear is open.

Our three-sided bee house with rear access allows easy hive inspections. It holds three hives and keeps the hives dry in rain.

 

 

What to do if you suspect robbers. The best course of action would be to insert into the opening of the hive a wooden board that has a small rectangular opening or hole in it. This effectively reduces the size of the entrance, making it easier to defend.

 

 

Hives with small numbers of bees won’t have the capability to defend a large entrance opening, so it makes sense to insert an entrance reducer board.

 

 

In the winter, the entrance reducer board will also help to keep out inclement weather like rain and snow as well as reduce drafts.

 

 

The drone (male bees) are vital for mating with the queen; after that, they are unnecessary and are elminated

The reducer board (the yellow wooden insert in the white hive) reduces the size of the of the hive opening.

 

 

I confess that I don’t know how beekeepers care for their hives in other parts of the country. My knowledge comes from my experience keeping my own bees in the East Bay’s microclimate where the summers are hot, and the winters are typically cold and rainy.

 

 

I’ve also learned a lot from my beekeeper neighbor whose father was a beekeeper in the mountains of Lebanon. Over the last five years, this neighbor  has generously shared his knowledge with me as we’ve worked on our respective hives together.

 

 

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De-Seeding a Pomegranate

Author: Meera, October 7, 2015

Pomegranates are known since biblical times as a food of the gods. When ripe, the fruit’s leathery skin often splits open, exposing the red seeds inside. The fruit hangs like a jewel from a strong stem that must be cut or twisted to release the fruit.

 

 

Ripe pomegranates have a leathery outer skin, membranes thicker than oranges, but sweet, juicy seeds inside

Ripe pomegranates have a leathery outer skin, membranes thicker than oranges, but sweet, juicy seeds inside

 

 

 

Inside a ripe pomegranate are hundreds of juicy, sweet seeds that resemble small pegs of sweet corn. Holding the seeds in place are membranes.

 

 

The ruby red juice will stain fabrics and your fingers, so you’ll want to be careful handling the fruit as you release the seeds. The juice will stain your cutting board, too, but that stain can be removed with a lemon juice or vinegar scrub.

 

Cut off the stem and the blossom end.

 

Make a long shallow cut from the top to the bottom and up the other side, but avoid cutting deeply to avoid damaging the seeds. Then rotate the fruit and make a second cut completely around. Make 6 or 8 such shallow cuts to create equal sections.

 

 

Pomegranate seeds add sweetness and crunch to salads but can also be juiced or eaten fresh

Pomegranate seeds add sweetness and crunch to salads but can also be juiced or eaten fresh

 

 

Pry open the fruit to expose the seeds (known as arils). Place the fruit into a basin of water for 5 minutes. Working over the basin, peel the skin off and strip away the membrane pieces to release all the seeds.

 

Pluck out the membranes and rinse the seeds in a strainer. They are ready to be tossed into salads, eaten fresh, or stored in an airtight container (not metal) for 3-4 days. The seeds may also be made into juice; however, straining the juice from the seed pulp will be necessary.

 

If you keep chickens, it might interest you to know they love fresh pomegranate seeds. Seeing a ripened fruit with its peel split open and seeds exposed is a temptation for them to peck at low-hanging fruit on the tree.

 

 

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Finding Time for Everything

Author: Meera, October 4, 2015

Anyone who keeps bees and chickens, maintains an orchard, and grows their own food will tell you that the work never stops. There’s always something to do. For me, the challenge is finding time now to clean and waterproof sheds, do the fall cleanup, feed my bees, clean the chicken house, pull out the tomato vines, and well, you get the idea.

 

 

 

tomatoes

 

 

 

 

For me, the past week and the coming week have been so packed with deadlines and fulfilling contractual obligations to my publisher and promotional outlets, that I’ve found very little time available to do anything but keep my promises. But I don’t mind. I am loving the journey of getting my first of three cozy mysteries launched.

 

 

 

 

My debut novel, the first in a series of three cozy mysteries set on the Henny Penny Farmette

The first novel in my cozy mysteries is set on my Henny Penny Farmette and is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores everywhere

 

 

 

Today, I’m taking two hours to empty out the six-by-six foot garden shed. So far, I’ve found a dead rat and two dead mice amid all the garden items, tools, and building materials in that shed.

 

A small rainstorm blew through last night and caught me unprepared. I’d left boxes outside and had to leap from bed and dash out into the pelting rain to get items indoors. Then, just as I finally put my head against my pillow and listened the wind howling through the eucalyptus trees out back, a skunk crossed under my open bedroom window.

 

You guessed it. That foul-smelling skunk spray really put the kibosh on drifting off to dreamland. But once I fell asleep, it was deep and restful–so important to a creative mind. But as soon as my feet hit the floor this morning, I harbored hope to have more energy today than yesterday and more time. I’m guessing you know what I mean.

 

Check out the reviews for A Beeline to Murder at: http://www.amazon.com/Beeline-Murder-Henny-Farmette-Mystery/dp/161773909X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443997291&sr=1-1&keywords=Meera+Lester

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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