Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ships of the Desert | Oasis Camel Dairy

One of the beautiful camels at Oasis Camel Dairy

One of my favorite modern-day adventure stories is the tale of Aussie-outback explorer Robyn Davidson. In her beautiful story Tracks, which charts her epic adventure, she details her solo journey from the middle of the continent to the coastline with nothing but four camels and her dog. It's a journey many thought impossible for even seasoned adventurers, but she is quoted as believing that "ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things."

Robyn Davidson with her camel. Credit: Nat Geo photographer Rick Smolan.

Issue Magazine has a stunning array of Rick Smolan's photographic documentation of Davidson's journey for National Geographic here. A gorgeous and inspiring movie was made about the journey, which I highly recommend; view the trailer here:

While camels are widely-known to be excellent load-bearing workers in arid climes, I wanted to learn more about their behavior. Enter the first camel dairy in the United States, which happens to be located in our very own backyard: Oasis Camel Dairy

Did you know: camels consume half as much hay and water as horses do.

During open tour days, Gil and Nancy will tell you everything you'd like to know about camels - and in pretty entertaining fashion, too - starting when they met decades ago when Nancy had a bird show and Gil bought four baby camels on a whim. Since then, they have rehabbed countless camels, turned their incredible milk into bath and beauty products, and provided tens of acres of arid Ramona land for these beauties to roam about.

 The soft, curly fur on a camel not only makes soft sweaters - it keeps it cool in the hot sun.

These are what are known as dromedary camels (one hump). One of the most fascinating things about them is the fact that they are the only mammals with oval-shaped red blood cells, instead of round. When temperatures rise, those cells can shrink down and still move effectively through veins and arteries, delivering much-needed oxygen and nutrients despite an internal temperature of as high as 108 degrees.

The apparent scabs on their knees and chest are just big calluses to protect them when they rest on hot, rocky ground.

Another interesting camel fact: since they have no natural predators in the wild, they do not startle or "spook" like a horse can. That is not to say that they are unable to express displeasure, though. They can still do that.

They don't actually spit, but they can yell!

But when you or your children are having a little Ramona-based adventure riding one, it's nice to know that the camels are undisturbed by your presence on their back and even enjoy it... especially when extra treats are given around riding time. 

This is our middle daughter riding Camelot. He's the tallest of their camels.

Our other two children riding Cleopatra.

Me with Camelot. He was so sweet!

Because Oasis was the first camel dairy in the nation, their biggest challenge was obtaining legal authorization to sell camel milk for consumption. The benefits of camel milk are many; nonetheless, the State of California has yet to allow it. Instead, the dairy makes skin and beauty products from the milk, adding lavender, honey, and pomegranate for variety.

Another challenge faced by camel-keepers is access to a veterinarian qualified to treat camels - their issues are much different from other farm animals like horses or cows. Oasis has even taken in camels that had been given up on for health reasons, and with time and patience, nurtured them back to health using experience and gut instinct... no pun intended (these are ruminants, after all!)

  Come on out to Ramona and patronize this sweet local farm.

You might even make a new friend!

Thanks for looking - xo :)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cooper's Hawk (+ Praying Mantis) | Suburban backyard predators

While I was recording this video of a sneaky praying mantis being sneaky in our backyard here in Powadise... 

I heard the soft ruffle of feathers and saw a blur behind me when I turned to see a most beautiful - probably juvenile - Cooper's Hawk. Fun fact about Cooper's Hawks: their penchant for racing through trees to catch birds is dangerous. "In a study of more than 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons, 23 percent showed old, healed-over fractures in the bones of the chest ... especially of the wishbone." 

It (sorry to be so vague, but I can't sex this bird) was clutching something in its talons. Cooper's Hawks catch their prey with their feet and kill it by repeated squeezing. 

Whatever this hawk was clutching had also had a wing... that looked suspiciously like a dove wing. I can't fault it for that! Add this raptor to the long list of creatures that recognize the delicacy that is dove meat. 

This raptor re-adjusted its grip a few times and never dropped the bird. But it did get some soft, downy feathers caught in its beak like a bird dog will do when out in the field retrieving.

It then devoured the prey, scattering feathers hither and to in the process.

Interestingly, while falcons deliver a kill bite, the Cooper’s Hawk kills almost exclusively with their talons and keep their head away from the prey while it is still alive. They’ve even been observed drowning prey by holding it underwater until it no longer moved.

Then it wiped its face and cleaned away the bits of flesh and feathers around its beak by rubbing against the branches, like a cat would with its paws.

It seemed to rest for a little while before taking off, and amazingly did not seem to mind my presence at all.

Hope you enjoyed this little raptor moment.

Thanks for looking! xo

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Julian Apple Picking | Pear & Apple Crisp

I always wait until fall is in full swing before it occurs to me to go apple-picking, and that - if you know anything about apple-picking - is already too late. So I was grateful to a friend who suggested it nice and early this year, and we made plans to have our families meet up the hour's drive away out in Julian, California.

July and August always get credit for being the most "summery" of months, but September is like hell on Earth here in SoCal to me. You might get snow flurries out in Julian in October, but standing in the sun in September makes you feel like you're a vampire who got caught outside her coffin at sunrise: it actually hurts, even just for a moment.

But nevermind all that when there's fruit to be picked! Last year we went to Volcan Valley Apple Farm and it has a nice winery on the premises - and I do highly recommend them if apples and wine is your thing - but we decided to try something new this year and check out the apple and pear orchard just down the road called Apple Starr Orchard.

The kids loved the access to the fruit-pickers for the fruit out of reach of their little arms, and I loved the fresh pears.

Who knew that Julian grew such delicious pears? They were the best we'd ever tasted. And the apples were sour, but sweet too.

We had a lovely bounty to bring home.

However, we have Verizon cell service and this pocket of land where the orchard is located gave me NO cell service... and the friends we were meeting fled the heat as soon as their bags were filled, and headed back to Poway. Other friends stopped at Volcan Orchards and never made it down the road to Apple Starr. And I couldn't communicate with any of them without cell service. So we were forced - forced, I say! - to head into the adjacent Menghini Winery for refuge.

The kids took a break from harvesting fruit as if I had been some kind of hardcore slave-driver.

 I considered my wine options while taking a look around.

We rated the wine as just okay... which is to say that I still really liked it because I was so happy to be sipping fermented fruit juice in the shade of their tasting room. There was some live folksy-type music playing out back that drifted in though the open door whether you liked it or not, and personally I would also rate that as a negative. You might love it though. If you have terrible taste in music.

We enjoyed nosing around the steel tanks. A bit of viniculture for you.

We also hit Julian Hard Cider which was a genuine hit - they had amazing food, a delicious assortment of ciders (plus beer on tap, plus a wine-tasting room soon to come), and also a kids' play room. You could really spend a few hours just HERE with the kids and everyone would have a really good time.

We did move on though, mostly to satisfy the craving for the best apple pie on the planet: the one made by Julian Pie Company. The slice below has cinnamon ice cream on top and is just nirvana-inducing.

Has some fool tried to tell you that you can get a good apple pie anywhere in Julian? Don't believe them. We've suffered through lots of sub-par slices for you and I couldn't agree more with the words of the following review - and I cut off all the reviews below #3 (because you don't even need to know who they are, just eat at Julian Pie Co.) Also: I think the words written about "Mom's Pies" are too kind... the crust isn't nearly good enough to salvage that thing.

So we brought home our bounty and I separated the pears and the apples first, thinking I would make different things with them.

I didn't! I just made my favorite (and my family's favorite) Apple Crisp with both apples and pears.

All you have to do is peel (or not, but I like mine peeled) and slice a couple of small apples and a couple of pears.

Mix together the following in a large bowl:

1.5 Cups oats
1.5 Cups flour
1.5 Cups brown sugar
1.5 teaspoons cinnamon
then add in 1 Cup of melted butter; more if your apples are particularly dry.

Put half of the mixture in a small baking pan, add the slices of apples (and pears if using). This baking pan is not the standard size, and actually fits into my little counter top Breville Smart Oven. It's convenient if you're using your standard oven to make dinner or roast/bake anything slow... you can then throw this together while dinner cooks.

Add the other half of the crumble mixture over top the slices and put into the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Perfect to pop into the oven before dinner so that you have it nice and piping hot when it's time for dessert! You needn't cook it while drinking wine like I did, but I can't really think of a better way to cook.

And here is the finished product. Definitely double the recipe and put it into a larger, more traditional baking pan if you can... believe it or not, leftovers of this heated up in the microwave taste as good as the minute it comes out of the oven. I hadn't tried it with pears before, and have to say that the pears stole the show: this is one dish that loves a sweet and juicy fruit, so if you use only apples, make them sweet, and make sure they're juicy.

And since we're on the topic of apple recipes, I thought I'd throw this in. You can never have too many recipes for all those apples you picked. This one is from Georgia Pelligrini and hers is way cuter: it's a French Apple Tart. Also check out this amazing French Pear Tart from Dorie Greenspan. Are you sensing a theme here? Tarts are the way to go for your apple and pear bounty.

Thanks for looking, and happy picking and baking!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hunting the Dove Season Opener | Bad Day Dove Risotto

Hunting is hard enough these days even if you're young and single and living out on the edges of society in a state populated by citizens who respect the artistry, the history, and the necessity of the sport.

Add to that being a suburban-dweller with a few kids, some decades on you, probably a spouse who doesn't love being a "hunting widow" - or harder still, a spouse who also loves hunting... because who's going to watch the kids? - and all of that in a state that treats the greatest financial contributors to conservation (spoiler alert: it's hunters) like a species to be just barely tolerated... and it can be unrewarding to get up at 4:00 am to go hunting.

Did you say your lawn was getting dried out? This is the ground out in El Centro. One parched layer curls in the sun on top of the one beneath it.

That said, we wouldn't miss the Dove Season Opener on September 1st if we could help it. We dropped the kids off at school first and then raced out to Imperial Valley. Rolled in around 9:00 am or so. It's the Yuma Desert so it's hot. Even by 6:30 am it's hot, so getting there any later can be brutal.

Brutal not only from the heat, but for the fact that the doves just aren't flying when it's too hot.

You find yourself thinking that the giant dragonflies you see buzzing around are doves, and for a split second you tense up, ready to take a shot.

Then when it's too hot to talk anymore you look down and stare at the desert floor, wondering: What did this place look like when there were oceans here? There are bivalve shells baked right into the ground, just as there are hundreds of miles away at the beach. I dislodge them sometimes and take them home for the kids.

True story: we struck out. On the opener, we took some shots, but we didn't get a single bird. We did some additional scouting which is always worthwhile, but I'd say it was a bona fide bust.

So we went again. I've learned wise lessons from other seasoned hunters. Take fellow mother and Extreme Huntress Nikita Dalke - whom I follow and respect both for her successes and for her attitude in the field - who says the hunt is not, in fact, about the quarry. It's about the hiking. The nature. The wildlife. The company. The way your senses come alive on a primitive level. You are entirely in the here and now, noticing the smallest movements and filtering out the particular sounds that signal your wanted food source.

If you love animals - and who doesn't? - you find yourself pushing against this long-standing social mandate to never harm one... unless one of the following exceptions to that so-called moral code apply, and the animal in question is:

  • A distasteful insect/spider. 
  • A snake! 
  • Mice, rats, and troublesome squirrels. Moles too.
  • Sharks. 
  • Bears who sneak up on us when we're hiking. Or a wolf, or a cougar. 
  • Oh, and all the animals we don't see unless someone else kills them for our dinner... including fish.

Unless you belong to that small group of farmers and factory farm workers, we are so separated from the act of harvesting meat anymore that most people will tell you that it's a horrifying thought. But once you see the animal for the meat you're eating (usually everyday), it seems pretty hypocritical to condemn someone for wanting the honestly of harvesting that meat themselves.

So yeah, we got a couple. You may not understand this (but if you're a hunter you surely will, or if you've ever been really hungry and saw your food coming out from the kitchen at your favorite restaurant, you know a little of the feeling)... but even two doves is exciting!

This video is the best example of hunter's adrenaline that I've ever seen:

Interestingly, you don't even need a long barrel to hunt dove, if you're good. My husband uses this 18" shorty 12-gauge by Escort (yes, it's legal in California) and has great success, both on the skeet range and in the fields.

And I have become the master of breasting out these birds - I mean in seconds flat. Observe my hunting mentor breasting them out here. It's this easy:

To ensure that the meat you've harvested is from the right bird in season, you should leave one wing attached to the breast if you are not taking the entire bird home with you. Here, I've left one wing attached at the breast. Left is white-winged dove, and right is mourning.

I know these look like hearts, but they're actually the breast of the bird. A lot of people think the meat will be white or light pink like the chicken breasts in their cellophane-wrapped chicken breasts from the store, but wild game doesn't usually look like that.

People also imagine that there will be shell shot to pick out of the meat, but I've literally only found a single pellet in the meat on only one occasion. And we use steel shell shot here now in California (at least we do), not lead. So, no harm no fowl. Foul! That's a good joke, no?

Now for the recipe: I'd been dying to try this Dove-and-Mushroom Risotto from the beautiful field-to-table book Afield, so this day of small bounty was my chance. Did I mention that Afield was nominated for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Book Award? It's thoughtful, inspiring, and filled with beautiful photographs.

As Jessi Cape describes this recipe in a review in The Austin Chronicle, "Earthy and delicious, hearty and nutritious, this recipe was a hit... in a post-dinner phone conversation with my beloved grandmother, she told me she wished she had owned a cookbook such as this when she was preparing the wild game my grandfather brought home to her so many years ago. Whether new skills and recipes are the goal, or finding a gorgeous book that bridges generational gaps and cultural differences, Afield hits the mark."

So, starting with the meat as we so often do, I simmered our dove breasts as directed:
In a large pot over high heat, add the dove breasts, bay leaf, and 2 quarts of cold water. Bring just to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until tender, about 2 hours.

They stayed amazingly moist as a result, and had that distinctive earthy flavor that only wild game yields. Reserve the water that the dove breasts cooked in; you will use this for the risotto. Dice or shred the meat.

Gather up the rest of your ingredients:

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 slices high-quality bacon, diced
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups thinly-sliced mushroom
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 C arborio rice
  • 1/4 C white wine
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • 1/4 grated Parmesan cheese
  • zest of 1 lemon

Heat the olive oil over M-H heat (I used an enameled Dutch oven) and cook the bacon until crispy, about 5 min.

Add the onion and mushroom and season with salt and pepper, cooking and stirring often for about 5 more minutes.

Add the rice to the pot and cook a couple minutes more, stirring and stirring, letting the rice become fragrant and toasty. Add the wine, and scraping the pan well, cook until the liquid has almost evaporated, about 2 min.

Add a large ladle of the reserved warm/hot dove stock from above to the pot and cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed. Continue to add stock to the rice, a little bit at a time, waiting until it is absorbed before adding more, and until the rice is tender but not mushy, 20-25 minutes total. The rice should have a little bite left to it, and should be very saucy and slightly pourable, not dense. Adjust as necessary with additional stock; you may not need all of it.

Stir in the butter, cheese, lemon zest (don't leave that out, it really makes the dish!), and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately on warm plates.

DOUBLE the recipe to serve a family.

Hope you enjoyed this post, and remember that you can make this dish with chicken breasts or even pork chops if you so desire. Either would be quite tasty with the mushroom and risotto.

Happy hunting and happier cooking! xo