Sep 17, 2009

What's A Tree Worth?

Yesterday the city of Palo Alto completed its removal of some 50 trees, mostly holly oak (Quercus ilex), from sidewalks and medians on California Avenue. This is the first phase of an urban facelift that promises additional pedestrian-friendly features such as crosswalks, benches, and new red maple (Acer rubrum) shade trees.

It's a bit disturbing, especially for someone in my business, to witness the clear-cutting of an entire business district. And the barren streetscape is particularly shocking for anyone who hasn't been there since, oh, Monday. But what seems to be most upsetting for people is the fact that, for most of us, this was an utter surprise.

My studio is located on Cal Ave, and I can attest that the city did reach out with mailers advertising public meetings and soliciting comment. But none of us was told that the project was moving forward, nor given a timetable. When I called Public Works on Tuesday (when the tree removal began), I was told only that "it's part of a remodel for the street." No proposed plans on file, no renderings to review.

As Jeff Gatlin of the Daily Post reports (sorry, no link, they think "giving away news online is a dumb way to do business"), reactions on my street range from resigned to furious. The owner of Leaf and Petal thinks the removals should have been done "in increments like a fifth at a time". The manager of Szechuan Cafe thinks "it was a bad idea to cut trees that were here for 30 years." Next door, excellent Mexican restaurant Palo Alto Sol lost a huge tree that shaded several of its tables; owner Hector Sol was as hot as his salsa rojo, saying "Whoever did this is an idiot… now customers refuse to sit where they used to ask to be seated."

For what it's worth, I feel that (1) all the trees should have been taken out, and replaced, at one time — a patchwork of old and new would have looked particularly odd; (2) the deciduous, colorful red maples will be an improvement over the evergreen, dark holly oaks; and (3) Hector's food really is excellent.

But there's a lesson in here about the emotional attachments people form with their landscapes.

For better or worse, we were used to the holly oaks. Sure, their deluge of acorns made walking a bit treacherous each fall. Sure, they misted sap onto cars, people and bikes each spring, Sure, they were massive and not particularly pretty. But they were "ours," they shaded us while we sat and dined and socialized, they added a vertical dimension to a low-slung avenue, they softened the aging concrete facades. We loved those old trees — we just didn't know it until they vanished.

Twenty years from now, we will have the same attachment to the red maples. I can only hope that, if future planners decide to remove those, they will have learned that we all would appreciate a little more time to prepare our hearts for the loss.

Sep 3, 2009

The Biggest Little Farm in Napa

You've probably heard of The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller's definitive nouveau American restaurant that launched a little Napa County town called Yountville into the culinary stratosphere. You may even know that The French Laundry grows their own produce, mostly in a two-acre plot across Washington Street that brims with herbs and seasonal vegetables—from broccoli and Brussels sprouts to beans, tomatoes, radishes, leeks, and a seemingly infinite number of lettuces, to name just a few.

But what you probably don't know is that when Chef Keller needs green almonds, or white strawberries, or one of 10 types of figs or countless different culinary flowers, he travels a little farther afield: to Jacobsen Orchards.

Although it's just a few blocks from The French Laundry, you won't find Jacobsen Orchards on any map, nor is it open to the public. As essentially the restaurant's R&D laboratory, the 1.3-acre farm teems with 120 fruit trees, half a dozen varieties of melon, 18 different citrus, 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and curiosities most of us will never grow: white carrots, white miniature cucumbers, Japanese eggplant, caperberry, the odd-looking but delicious perennial tuber crosnes ("crones"), and the singular savory-acid-crunchy-juicy Ficoide glaciale.

Our host at Jacobsen Orchards was Ryan Hill, proprietor of the Hill Family Estate winery which has long ties to the land and landowner, Peter Jacobsen (aka PJ). Ryan walks the farm as if he had sown the seeds himself, bestowing samples of Korean mint and scarlet runner bean blossoms as he fluently discusses the breba crop of Brown Turkey figs. Ryan HillHe shows off the outdoor kitchen and fireplace, expertly crafted of rammed earth. And he gets our mouths watering with a description of "PJ's Peach Flambé," a dessert that sounds as much art form as recipe (below).

Nothing on the farm is wasted; or rather, every opportunity is maximized. The 'Sylvetta' arugula which has bolted? Its flowers are used in salads. The lovage which invites pollinator insects to the garden? Its pungent celery scent makes a great substitute for bay leaf. Long after those Brown Turkey figs are gone, the tree's leaves may be used to impart a coconut essence to soups and other dishes. Fennel pollen seasons fish, daylily petals are roasted into chips, garlic blossoms and lemon verbena leaves perform their olfactory sleights of hand. We and our host revel in the symbiotic relationship between the produce and the chefs who use it in their daily culinary alchemy.

CompostNaturally, all the green waste is composted, with the yield used as a mulch and reintegrated into the soil as crops are rotated throughout the seasons and years. The scraps also contribute to perhaps the farm's most precious product: snails, in fact the only certified organic culinary snails in the United States. The little critters are sourced to The French Laundry for—what else?—escargots, perhaps prepared into a fricassée with a puree of sweet carrots and roasted shallots. To accompany such a dish, Ryan recommends either the Hill Family's 2007 "Stewart Ranch" Pinot Noir, with enough acidity to complement the snails, or the silky-smooth tannins of their 2006 "Clarke Vineyard" Syrah. Happily for us, their tasting room also sells seed packets of some of Jacobsen Orchards' organic flowers and produce, so we can attempt to replicate a bit of the Jacobsen family's magic.

In the 15 or so years of its existence, I've never had the pleasure of dining at The French Laundry. If you have, most likely you've enjoyed the fruits of PJ's labors. But even if you haven't, chances are that almost any contemporary meal you enjoy has been influenced by Chef Keller. And, in turn, by Jacobsen Orchards.


PJ's Peach Flambé
As narrated by Ryan Hill and Peter Jacobsen

"This is culinary theatre, a circus act that creates a great dessert. This is not a recipe for wimps."

Serves Four

≤3 large peaches or nectarines, cut into irregular pieces
2 figs (not necessary, but adds flavor)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup rum
½ cup Grand Marnier (or any orange based liquor)
Pint or quart (depends on how much your guests enjoy ice cream) Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche

1. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the bottom of a 12" frying pan and put it over very high heat. Let it melt until clear and then let the edges start to brown. You are creating caramels. Caution! The pan will be very hot.

2. Once the sugar has melted and you have the browned the edges (brown, not black) then add the butter. Don’t forget, the pan is screamin’ hot, the butter will melt fast. Roll it around the pan until it is completely melted. You can even stir it a bit with a spatula. You are making brown butter caramel. You will love the smell and the drama. But there is more drama to come.

3. Once the butter has fully melted and has almost stopped foaming, quickly put all the fruit into the pan at once and stir so that each piece gets coated with brown butter/sugar caramel. Timing is important here. If you let the butter or sugar burn, that’s not good. Be prepared with all the fruit ready to go. You will notice, when you put the fruit into the pan, the pan is still very, very hot. That’s the plan. You want the sugars of the fruit to mix with the butter caramel and scorch a little bit as the boiling juices cool the pan down. You still have the pan on a very high heat. Temperature and timing are all in this recipe.

4. Allow fruit to sit and "fry" for 1.5 to 2 minutes as the pan cools down to boiling.

5. Quickly pour in the rum (measures get less exact at this point. Two or three glugs [a unit of measure based on the sound of the fluid pouring out of the bottle] is perfect.) Did I mention, quickly? The pan is hot, the rum has alcohol, and there will be fire. Quickly pour in the rum and get the bottle far away from the flame. This is not Molotov cocktail time. That would be too much drama. You can always pre-measure the rum in a cup and have it ready. Cups don’t explode. That is a good thing.

Shake the pan so the rum coats the fruit and starts to boil, then tip the pan slightly so the flames "see" the alcohol boiling off. Pow!, now we’re smokin’, or actually you will be flamin’. (Do the French say flambé-in'?) Let it boil until the flames die down and then boil a bit more, 1.5 minutes, to get the juices hotter and thicker.

6. Add the Grand Marnier, and repeat step 5.

7. Allow the fruit and juice to boil down until the liquid becomes thicker and concentrated. It is thick enough when the bubbles of the liquid start to get very small.

8. Scoop over a bit of cake or beside a nice dollop of Dulce de Leche ice cream. The caramels of the Dulce de Leche ice cream complement the caramels of the peaches perfectly.


Sep 2, 2009

MeMe, A Name I Call Myself. Twice.

There's nothing quite so satisfying as learning that not one but two peers whom I respect a lot seem to feel mutually. Both Susan Cohan, APLD, and Laura Schaub have been generous enough to nominate me (me!) for a MeMe. I respectfully accept the MeMes, and thank Susan and Laura for their support.

Apparently the MeMe has a few, simple, rules:
1) Link back to whomever nominated you
2) Reveal seven tidbits about yourself
3) Nominate and link to seven other blogs
4) Notify your nominees with a comment on their blogs
5) Notify your nominator(s) when your "acceptance" post is up
Personally, I think there should be two more rules, to keep the whole "power of seven" thing going. Wait, that's not one of my reveals, is it? Good. Because what I really want you to know about me is:
1) I detest incompetence. Including my own. It's not that I'm a perfectionist, exactly: I know "done is better than perfect." It's more that if there is a better way, I want to learn it. A better tool, I want to use it. A better design, I want to make it. This is why I'm not the fastest at my craft: I react viscerally to releasing a product that doesn't live up to its potential. Let's get beyond "good." Let's get to "amazing."

2) I am addicted to creativity. My jones encompasses not just landscape but also graphic design, writing, advertising (my first career and secret love), architecture, typography, cooking, music, user interfaces, tattoos, any solution or expression—I am at once inspired, awed and intimidated by the creative process, the alchemy of producing something from nothing.

3) I love improvisational theater classes. (Hint: improv isn't about being funny. It's about developing a "yes, and…" reflex that validates the present and welcomes the future.) I recommend nothing more highly if you are, or expect to become, a parent. Especially a parent of twins. Especially twin boys.

4) I am 237 days away from a certificate in Landscape Architecture. This will bring me one step closer to becoming a licensed landscape architect, legally able to develop grading and drainage plans, specify construction details and generally create landscapes as opposed to gardens. In the meantime I will be devoting about 50% of my time to school, 50% to work, and 50% to my home and family. If I nod off in conversation with you, please understand.

5) I grew up in Las Vegas. No, it didn't seem bizarre to me at the time. Yes, some of my classmates would become showgirls. Even better, there was still desert there, literally in my backyard, enough for me to understand how desperately important water conservation was (and is)—and to have my heart broken repeatedly by the endless procession of gratuitous lawns, megalomaniacal fountains, and incompetent irrigation. I refuse to replicate those mistakes.

6) “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
—Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love
7) I am a garden designer—not a gardener. The state of the yards at my home belies this. I do not share a passion for horticultivation, pinching, pruning, weeding, seeding, cross-breeding…. I enjoy the results, and I am more than happy to stand on the shoulders of others who love gardening—and to be the catalyst of others' joy in their own gardens.
Because I believe the crux of my work is to inspire you, I'm pleased to nominate the following seven inspiring blogs for their own MeMe awards:
1) Chance of Rain. As a contributor to the Las Vegas Sun and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Emily Green brings a wonderful voice and wisdom to gardening in dry places and times.

2) woolgathering. Elizabeth Perry has published a sketch a day for the better part of four years: more than 1,330 of them, in case you're keeping score. No apologies. No excuses. No shrinking.

3) House Enthusiast. Katie Hutchinson's reflections on architecture and design are graceful, thoughtful, beautiful and meaningful.

4) Garden Porn. Smart, generous, opinionated and funny, Michelle Derviss creates beauty that has literally taken my breath away.

5) Steve Snedeker's Landscaping and Gardening Blog. No pithy blog name, just straightforward advice and insights that make me wish Steve lived (or at least worked) further south. Like Palo Alto.

6) idsgn (a design blog). Design and branding news and inspiration. Nothing to do with gardening. Unlikely to accept a MeMe. Brilliant.

7) Verdigris Vie. The patina of a life well lived—Vitania's blog reads more like a transcribed dream than a delicious collection of interior design and lifestyle ideas.
Obviously I've left out a lot of people whose blogs I enjoy. I'm not even going to attempt to name names, but if you've made it this far then you should at least also check out the links over and down in the right column, there. In the meantime, thanks for indulging me, and Susan and Laura, thanks again for the nomination!