The hike

The weather this week has been a complete reversal of last week — just beautiful and perfect. So I can finally show you the hike that I go on at least once a week.

It takes about 15 minutes to get to the base of the hill from my house, a nice walk through the neighborhood. Once you get to the start of the trail there’s a bit of an oh-shit moment. It looks like a sheer face you’re about to go up.

But the payoff happens pretty quickly. This is the view from partway up the trail.

Take a quick breather, then continue up the path.

That would be looking down from about 2/3 up the trail.

Believe it or not, we do actually experience spring here. There are all kinds of flowers blooming in bright colors right now.

I also found what I think is wild fennel.

By the time you get to the top you start to feel like you can see for miles.

There’s the perfect spot for a picnic under a tree.

By this point you’re getting fried in the sun. Then all the sudden it’s like you’re in Sherwood Forest.

You’re surrounded by giant trees with peeling bark. It’s smells amazing back in there.

Some of the trees are really gnarly.

If you need a rest, there’s a seat just for you.

Try not to get too paranoid about mountain lions (even though you just read about one in Redwood City!).

Then it’s back down the hill to civilization. I also thought I would point out the sign about keeping your dog on a leash that no one obeys.

Dog owners can be a little exasperating here. I’m all for dog friendliness, but if your off-leash dog causes some kind of problem, it makes us all look bad.

Anyway, on my way home I like to get landscaping ideas from other people’s yards. Some people have these amazingly manicured plants and rock gardens.

Maybe we need a bird of paradise.

Or a cactus.

Hopefully we’ll have oranges soon!

Sadly, these belong to a neighbor.

Our first visitors

We had our first California houseguests this week. My mom flew out from Kansas and my sister came up from her new home in Orange County.

How gorgeous are these women?

We started with some bay area essentials.

First, breakfast at Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Since we went on a Monday we got a table right away, which is pretty much unheard of there. On Mondays their special is tangy sourdough pancakes. I tried them with sides of their soft cooked eggs and grilled tomatoes (subbed in for the sausage). They were really delish and unique.

My mom tried another special with poached eggs and spinach that looked yummy and healthy.

Tuesday we took them to San Francisco so we could catch the Ferry Building market. Only a few food vendors are there on Tuesday, but there’s still plenty to sample. I’ll just say that at this point all dietary restrictions went out the window, but I tried to be reasonable by splitting stuff and then walking all. day. long.

I finally tried the Blue Bottle caramelized waffle. It was so soft and yummy that we ate the whole thing before I could get a photo. Oops.

We also tried a Pepples Organic Donut in salted caramel. Again, yum.

I got some Miette gingersnaps to go. They are extra gingery and spicy, and so good with a cup of coffee.

We needed coffee because it was miserably cold that day. The weather seemed to change between cold and sunny to cold and rainy to cold and rainy and windy about every 20 minutes. I was definitely not wearing enough layers for that.

Next we hiked up to Coit Tower to see a better view of the city.

I was sad that I didn’t see any Telegraph Hill parrots. Maybe next time.

We of course had to stop at the hat shop. My mom got this one. I am in love with this one.

Before dim sum in Chinatown we had to show them our favorite bar, Vesuvio. Just love the signage.

Speaking of signage, several people had these cheeky signs on their garages.

We finally made our way out to the edge of Golden Gate Park to see the ocean. These crazy people were swimming in there. I repeat, crazy!

Later we drove across the Golden Gate to see it up close. It’s a sight that never gets old.

Do we look as cold as we were?

We ended their trip with dinner at Marica in Oakland. Though we’d been there before for seafood, we’d never had dessert. I decided one last splurge was OK (I’m definitely back to oatmeal now). So we had the “life-changing” chocolate souffle.

Des Moines-ians, you know I have high standards for a melty-centered chocolate dessert with homemade vanilla ice cream, but this one was by far the best I’d ever had. It was one of the best anythings I’ve ever had.

I am starting my bay area travel guide. More to share soon.

Look what we got

A birdhouse!

Last week I heard that there was a Groupon for Berkeley Rustic Birdhouses, and it was a total steal. $45 for $100 toward a birdhouse. So of course I bought it.

It was hard to choose from all the options.

But we fell in love with this one with the license plate roof.

How can you resist a tiny salvaged wood house with a tiny crooked staircase?

Sampling Szechuan

One of the cool things about living in the bay area is how diverse the cuisine is, especially when it comes to Asian foods. When someone wants to go out for Chinese food, you start by asking, “What kind?”

We’ve found great Hunan and dim sum/Cantonese places in San Francisco, and some awesome noodle places in Berkeley and Oakland. Then this weekend we realized there is actually a pan-Asian mall (suburban Chinatown?) not too far from our house that has a big grocery store and a bunch of restaurants (Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.). We decided to try one that served Szechuan food, after spotting some yummy looking hot pots in the window.

I know Szechuan food is hot, but wow. We ordered a bowl of spicy fish and soft tofu, and it blew our faces off.

The fish was basically just floating in a pool of pure chili oil. It was really good though. The spice flavor is actually similar to pumpkin pie spice or something like that.

This weekend we also had dinner with a friend of Mike’s from high school. His wife tipped us of to a bakery in Chinatown that makes the tastiest sweet and savory buns. I am just totally overwhelmed by the options here, after spending my whole life in places with essentially the same menus (sweet and sour this, General Tso’s that). Which I love, don’t get me wrong. It’s just so cool to feel like I have a whole new world of food exploration.

When we got out to our car after dinner we found a paper menu stuck to the windshield for another restaurant.

It features the unfortunately named “cat ear like” dish.

And a host of other fascinating things.

I tend not to have an Andrew Zimmern-like palate, but maybe I’ll get there eventually.

After my mouth cooled off I decided that I deserved a little treat, both for surviving dinner and for putting in some tough hikes this week. We ended up trying Tara’s Organic Ice Cream, which I’d heard was really good.

Oh my, were they right.

All day long I’d been watching college basketball and seeing constant adds and sponsorship logos for Reese’s products, so I opted for a scoop of chocolate and peanut butter. Mike tried the garam masala and Mayan chocolate flavors. They were all out of salted caramel, which was what I really wanted. Next time…

It was some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Plus, the scoops were tiny (and of course came in tiny compostable cups), so we didn’t even feel bad about indulging. It was the perfect little treat.

We only have about 50,000 restaurants left to try…

I am thinking about putting together a travel guide of my favorites here in case you want to know what to do/eat when you come visit!

Playing tourists

To be honest, I still feel like I am a tourist when I’m wandering around San Francisco. But I usually avoid Fisherman’s Wharf and other touristy sites at all costs because the crowds make me crazy.

This weekend, though, we decided that instead of taking a road trip, we’d explore a place locally that Mike and I hadn’t seen yet — Alcatraz.

We got up early on Saturday, took the (surprisingly crowded) BART across the bay, and started our day at the Ferry Building market. If you ever visit San Francisco, I highly recommend stopping there because the building itself is full of all these great local artisan foodie shops.

My favorites? Blue Bottle Coffee, of course. I had a cafe au lait, my first coffee in a long time. I decided I’m okay with some caffeine here and there. (Just no Diet Coke…) Next time we have to try Blue Bottle’s little handheld Belgian waffles. Have to!

(Side note: I love how disposable things like cups, lids, and plastic silverware here are all compostable, and there are separate bins for compost in public spaces. Also, Mike says a lot of coffee places give discounts for bringing your own cup. It’s just easy to be green.)

Also I fell in the love with the adorable Miette bakery. Resisting sugar was almost impossible there.

For breakfast we decided to have a mini rhubarb galette and a vegan yogurt/fruit parfait. I didn’t take a photo of the parfait, but it was really good. We also tried a vegan cheesecake made with cashew cream, which inspired me to make a similar recipe at home. I’ll share that with you soon.

We also picked up some of these dried orange slices to snack on later. (Which reminds me – the tangerines I wrote about the other day? Those were actually Shasta mandarins. Oops!)

I’ve never seen so many different kinds of dried fruits (and mushrooms, and cheeses, and lavendar-infused gourmet salts…). This definitely inspired me to go to farmers markets more often.

After breakfast, we wandered down the pier and just enjoyed the beautiful day.

Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill.

We were glad we remembered the previous night to check on tickets because they were sold out by Saturday morning. Can’t imagine what it’s like in the summertime.

After a short ferry ride we got to The Rock.

It is as daunting and crumbling and creepy as you think it would be.

Our tour guide sort of looked like Drew Carey but needed a little more practice at his stand-up.

I didn’t know about the native American occupation in 1969, so I was intrigued to learn about that part.

Inside, I just couldn’t believe how small everything was. I can’t imagine spending years and years trapped inside such a small building, let alone the microscopic cells.

The ironic part is that Alcatraz probably has the best view of San Francisco you can find.

Love all the sailboats near the Golden Gate.

By the time we finished our tour, the sky had turned gray and it was starting to get colder.

We checked out the birds, including these cormorants with their whiskery feathers, and some of the cool flowers.

After we got back, we decided to keep playing tourists. We stopped at Boudin Bakery and got a sourdough bread bowl with clam chowder. Mike said, “Isn’t that pretty much everything you don’t eat anymore?”

It’s true. But I figured since we split it and ate it with a huge salad after walking all day, I could make an exception.

We’re having visitors soon, so I’m sure we’ll get to play tourists again in the near future. I still haven’t been up to Coit Tower or seen the Telegraph Hill parrots, among other things. There is just so much to explore here. So. much. I love it.

Tangerine soda and other goodies

I guess it goes without saying that we have a better selection of citrus fruits now that we live in California. Not only that but it’s quite a bit cheaper. So after I got the Meyer lemons, I decided to try some tangerines. They’re a little warped looking from the outside, but inside they are the brightest orange color, and so juicy.

Taking a cue from Kristin’s mocktail, I thought I’d try making the juice into a soda. So I mixed the juice of one tangerine with about 8 ounces of sparkling mineral water, and it turned out great.

Definitely less sweet than regular soda. It feels sort of like a grownup version of soda.

I couldn’t seem to get a decent photo of the drink, but I liked it, and I think I’ll try it with other juices. Sometimes I get sick of water and tea, yanno?

Speaking of trying new things, I had to show you this yogurt I got.

Every time I saw these cute little crocks of St. Benoit yogurt in the store I wanted to buy one, but at $2.95 I couldn’t quite justify it.

Well, it turns out you’re really just paying a deposit for the returnable container, so I bit the bullet and got one. Along with these huge strawberries and some locally made granola, I thought I’d make myself a little yogurt parfait for breakfast.

The yogurt itself is a lot like my old favorite, Cultural Revolution. It’s kind of soupy with chunks of cream mixed in. Not pretty like the Yoplaits you’re used to, but that’s how you know it’s a little closer to it’s original form.

I have to say, though, that I liked the cute crock a lot better than the yogurt itself. It was so watery it turned my granola into mush. It didn’t seem creamy or tangy or any of the things that make yogurt so good. Plus it has a lot more calories than Cultural Revolution. I can’t get that here, though, so I’ll stick to my new favorite, Clover Organic.

A couple other tips to share:

• Dates are my new pantry staple item.

Mike eats them plain as snacks, and I use them to make my fruit/nut bars. They are super sweet, and the perfect binder when blended.

I like medjool dates. Just make sure you take the pits out or buy them already pitted. Those things will mangle a food processor.

• I decided that if I was going to eat salad more often I better get good at making my own dressings. I got this cute little dressing shaker at Target.

It even has recipes on the side that show you how high to fill the ingredients so it couldn’t be any easier.

I’ve been eating the honey mustard this week. It’s a little heavy on the honey, but I can always change that next time.

What else makes a good salad dressing?

The forecast

Living in the bay area, I feel totally disconnected from winter. After some pretty brutal Iowa winters, I don’t exactly mind. It’s just strange. But Erin reminded me that winter rages on back home without us, and they are having an especially crazy storm this week.

Here is her forecast, from Kirksville, MO:

Today…Snow in the morning…then snow and isolated thunderstorms in
the afternoon. Widespread blowing snow in the afternoon. Blustery.
Snow may be heavy at times in the afternoon. Visibility one quarter
mile or less at times in the afternoon. Snow accumulation of 6 to 8
inches. Bitterly cold. Highs around 19. Northeast winds 20 to 30 mph.
Gusts up to 40 mph in the afternoon. Chance of precipitation near 100

Tonight…Snow. Widespread blowing snow. Blustery. Snow may be heavy
at times. Visibility one quarter mile or less at times. Snow
accumulation of 8 to 10 inches. Storm total snow accumulation of 14 to
19 inches. Frigid. Lows around 6. North winds 25 to 35 mph. Chance of
precipitation near 100 percent. Wind chill readings 10 below to 15
below zero after midnight.

Wednesday…Considerable cloudiness with a 30 percent chance of snow.
Areas of blowing snow. Blustery…frigid. Highs around 11. Northwest
winds 15 to 25 mph. Wind chill readings 10 below to 15 below zero in
the morning.

Wednesday Night…Mostly clear. Colder. Dangerously cold wind chills.
Lows around 9 below. Northwest winds 10 to 15 mph. Wind chill readings
15 below to 25 below zero after midnight.

Thursday…Sunny. Dangerously cold wind chills. Highs around 12.
Southwest winds 10 to 15 mph. Wind chill readings 15 below to 25 below
zero in the morning.

Thursday Night…Clear…frigid. Lows near zero. Wind chill readings
10 below to 15 below zero after midnight.

And here is our forecast, which is pretty much the same forecast we always have, unless it’s the same temperature and raining.

Road trip: Sonoma

Mike has the day off work today, so we thought we should do something fun with our long weekend. The Napa/Sonoma area is only about a 45-minute drive for us, so we thought, why not?

We started off by driving to Santa Rosa for lunch at the Russian River Brewing Company. It seemed like a great place to take a group of people. Lots of fun and great beers. We took home a growler of Pliny the Elder. All the beers there have great names.

Then we started making our way through the wineries up there. We didn’t really have a plan (which is a good idea since there are so many options up there), but we had fun just stopping wherever we felt like it.

We tasted a few wines at St. Francis, and bought a Cabernet Franc to take home. Being a winery newbie I didn’t realize that there’s quite a price difference between the shelf at Trader Joe’s and a local place up there (or even any of the other wineries I’d been to previously). But it’s fun to save up and build your collection.

Did I mention it was pretty much the most gorgeous and perfect day ever? We really did have to pinch ourselves.

Next we went to Chateau St. Jean, where we discovered that we need a clementine tree. Since they grow in pots they don’t even take up that much space.

This winery has a picnic area, where you can grab a seat on an adirondack chair and look out at the vineyards and mountains. (Note to friends and family – the guest room is ready for you anytime…)

Finally, we stopped at a smaller place, Mayo Family Winery, where we got a better deal on a huge tasting. They had some pretty unusual varieties there, and we ended up getting a sparkling wine, of all things, just because we pretty much never buy them normally.

Pretty close to there is Jack London State Park, which we didn’t have time to visit (like everything else around there, it closes at 5), but I’m putting it on my list to return to. I just love the gnarly, moss-covered trees back there, and I think it would be a great place for a hike.

Around sunset, we drove into Sonoma. The guy at the last winery said that businesses on the town square there are open later. We looked around at the shops and restaurants, which kind of reminded me of a place like Aspen or Estes Park (frumpy clothing and fudge, mainly), and then we picked a really good Mexican place for dinner.

There’s quite a bit of history down there, including the Mission and a general’s home. I’m thinking we’ll be back again to explore more, and then I want to see Napa as well.

When I got home I was dying to watch “Sideways”, which I have on DVD. It was as funny as I remembered, and much more meaningful after a trip to wine country.

Road trip: Monterey and Big Sur

We decided that since Mike had the week off between Christmas and New Year’s for the first time in pretty much ever, that we should take advantage and go on a road trip. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money or leave the dogs alone for a long time, so we opted to take the roughly 3-hour drive down to Big Sur and check out the redwoods.

It turned out to be pretty much the best idea ever.

We picked a day when we heard the weather would be nice, and we ended up the most picturesque day you can imagine. First we stopped in Monterey to check out Fisherman’s Wharf. We couldn’t believe how much wildlife you could see (and get close to) in such a short amount of time. Plus, we made a mental note to come back another time for a while watching boat tour.

We saw seals and sea lions and otters playing in the water and sunning themselves on rocks.

Then we had fish tacos and tamales at a really yummy Mexican place, and continued the drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur.

The drive alone is worth the trip. It was crazy windy that day, so it made for dramatic scenes of waves crashing up against the cliffs.

We opted to hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park based on some online recommendations, and it did not disappoint. For a mere $10 entrance fee, we got to explore the amazing redwoods and hike up to a pretty waterfall at the end of the trail.

The scale is just unbelievable. I didn’t even realize how unbelievable until we came home and saw our photos.

We saw this guy on our way back. Fortunately we saw no mountain lions.

I highly, highly recommend this trip, and anyone who comes to visit us will be going there for sure!

Day at the dog park

We took advantage of a sunny Christmas Eve and headed to the dog park at Point Isabel. It’s kind of like a dog park on steroids – it’s huge! It feels more like a nature preserve, with pelicans swooping down into the bay. But you can definitely tell it’s a dog park because it’s always just packed with dogs of all shapes and sizes.

This might be one of my favorite photos of all time.

By the time we get back to the car the dogs are coated in muddy water (my wellies are getting quite a bit of wear here). But they snooze for the rest of the night and seem a lot more content to hang out in our cozy house after a good run.

Now that’s a happy pup!