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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lightning Strikes Once, Trees Strike Twice

You see it on the news in stormy weather all the time. The ground gets saturated, trees uproot, winds blow and trees topple. Of course, trees don't care where they fall and sometimes they cause major havoc on whatever they land. So last weekend this scene greeted me out my front window as I awoke on Saturday morning.

This tree actually stood in my neighbor's yard directly across the street. The driveway on the right side of the photo is mine. I live in a really cool older neighborhood of 260 homes called Rolling Woods that sits between Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley. Rolling Woods is aptly named after the many mature pines, eucalyptus and fir trees that define our neighborhood. However, our soil is really sandy because we are so close to the ocean and sometimes it just cannot support the weight of the huge trees when it is both wet and windy. This next shot shows where one half of the tree decided to part ways with the other so you can see the substantial size of the trunks.

The only thing that kept the fallen tree from completely reaching the ground was the top of it landed on my old oak tree. My tree suffered damaged but was proudly still standing after the carnage. The tree also took down the high voltage wires which meant about 100 homes went completely dark.

This one fallen tree kept our street closed for over twenty hours.

I was able to hack off a few protruding branches and clear a path for my car. This shot shows the huge size of the tree next to my Volkswagen Tiguan.

After an exhilarating testosterone release with my chainsaw I posed for this shot. Note: I'm NOT actually holding the tree up but I was feeling a bit cocky having knocked off a few substantial branches. :-)

By 7:00 p.m. PG&E and Davey Tree arrived to undo the mess. They were, of course, nearly overwhelmed by so many other storm related incidents. By very early Sunday morning our nearly 24 hour power outage had ended.

So that WOULD have been the end of the story until a couple of days later when it was time for another episode of Me vs. Tree. Perhaps it was my karma or the vigor with which I attacked the tree with my chainsaw but tree revenge struck back quickly. I was minding my own business and just driving home from Capitola at the speed limit along La Madrona Road. La Madrona is a frontage road adjacent to Highway 17. It is full of trees and vegetation on both sides of the road to the point where it almost resembles a tunnel in spots.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a tree ahead of me starting to fall from the left side of the road. I was forced to make a split second decision to stop or go. I opted to speed up and beat the tree down. Although I still stick to my decision to go I wasn't able to completely out run the tree. Trees are so normally immobile that I just realized the absurdity of discussing out running them. However, there was nothing humorous when it crashed on the roof of my car. My fast forward momentum and the rack rail on my roof was all that kept the tree from completely crushing my sunroof. I wonder how the driver of the car behind me felt when I instantly disappeared and he was suddenly face-to-face with this wall of tree. This photo shows how incredibly dense the massive trunk, branches and leaves were. There is absolutely no sign of a passable road.

These two pictures really tell the story. The size of the trunk means nothing if the ground can no longer support the weight. It is truly a recipe for disaster.

I returned to the scene of the crime the following day with my chainsaw for some retribution on Tree Two.

Of course, by that time the professional tree surgeons of Davey Tree Company had done all of the serious lifting, cutting and dismembering.

Yes, you can certainly call me lucky. My car escaped without serious damage. Tree Two was a much closer call than the battle with the one at home. Nonetheless lacking for spirit I once again declared victory over the trees.

The take away lesson here is to care for your trees and consult with a professional arborist if you sense the stability is in question. Luckily for me no limbs (of mine anyway) were harmed in the making of this story.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"You Can Trust Me With The Mic" What Does My Message Mean?

So what happens when a person without good mic technique and speaking skills takes the microphone? Disaster. If not catastrophic, then at the very least you get boring. This implosion is not something you'll see very often on network television or from truly professional presenters and announcers like Ellen Degeneres, Tom Brokaw or David Letterman. But you will see it at private events like wedding receptions when the DJ/MC is not skilled in presentation and really comes from an amateur hour background.

Have you visited my new iMCEvents.com website lately? I have expanded my discussion of what makes a great MC and how they make a huge difference.

In my ongoing effort to make clients feel more comfortable a message just popped out of my head. "You can trust me with the mic." That message is what I want to convey to anyone who is considering my services for any event whether it is emceeing their wedding reception, directing their fashion show, working with the auctioneer at their fund raiser or doing the play-by-play at their food and wine show.

Mic Shy & Gun Shy

I re-branded myself from DJ to MC because it became more and more obvious to me that the part of DJ work which takes the most skill and responsibility is being the MC. This awareness was underscored, highlighted and driven home again when I went back to school for more advanced training from renowned DJ Advocate and performance teacher, Mark Ferrell.

Mark reminded us that the number one fear in America and most dreaded activity among adults is public speaking. You've all heard the term "mic shy" but many people have a distaste for speaking to audiences that goes way beyond shyness. I often see the fear in their eyes and even body trembling at the mere suggestion of them making an announcement.

Enter: Gun Shy. Many people who have experienced unskilled presentations as guests then find themselves in a position to hire an MC for their own events. I hear the fear in their voices all of the time. This reluctance to trust the master of ceremonies has launched an entire new trend of having Uncle Bob be the MC at the wedding or have the bride's brother handle the introductions. Their thinking must be that the guests will excuse a family member for being less than remarkable on the mic. Although there is a place for DIY I certainly don't recommend it for something as high profile and important as directing a wedding reception.

So how do you screen for master of ceremonies skills? Start by meeting the candidates in person instead of just calling or e-mailing them. This person will be addressing your audience so how is his/her appearance? What is tone of their voice? How is their demeanor? Do they have a comforting personality and carry themselves well? Do they exude confidence? Mostly, can they accurately reflect your vision of the celebration and convey it your guests. This kind of assurance you can only get from having a face-to-face, up close and personal meeting with them. If you are not super comfortable at this meeting, RUN don't walk away and continue your search for a truly professional MC/DJ with whom you click.

The range of events where I have been the MC is as diverse as the personalities of my clients. I often must be able to shift from low key to high energy even as my events change gears. This flexibility is a skill that every professional MC should be able to execute during any event. Entertainers are not in a static but rather a dynamic work place. And mostly, events are inherently inert which means they need someone to DIG them (Direct•Inform•Guide) the guests as Mark Ferrell so aptly explains in his definition of a master of ceremonies.

You can trust me with the mic. I take charge without taking over. When you meet me in person you will see that I defy any of the cheesy stereotypes that television and movies use to portray DJs. You can also trust me with the music and entertaining of your guests because I care first about you and the success of your event.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March Food Excursion: The Cowgirl Creamery Is The Cream of the Crop

This month it was my favorite foodie friend, Stacie Tamaki's turn to pick our destination. Being very familiar with the Cowgirl Creamery I put up no argument at all. In fact, Cowgirl Creamy has been the cheese of choice from day one at our family winery, Dono dal Cielo in Newcastle, CA. I was elated to hear the plans of starting our journey in the beautiful northern coastal agriculture enclave of Point Reyes Station for the Cowgirl Creamy Cheese Tour. We arrived a bit early at 2:00 to scope out all of the cool stuff for foodies at the Tomales Bay Foods center.

Not only does the Cowgirl Creamery have a production facility and cheese shop here but they also have a delicious deli called Cowgirl Creamery Cantina serving up scratch made soups and sandwiches to the many visitors, cyclists and locals passing through. I opted for a cup of chickpea soup that was a perfect starter to begin our day full of taste sensations. My soup was served with some fresh baguette slices but the real surprise was finding whole chickpeas at the bottom of the creamy broth.

The tour began at 2:30 under the direction of Cheryl Dobbins. I snapped this shot of Cheryl describing the region and explaining the rich history of malt which stands for Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

Cheryl wasted no time in serving samples of the most popular Cowgirl Creamery cheeses to us and even demonstrated how simple the basic process of making cheese is right on our table.

In less than an hour we witnessed the basic process of making fresh cheese come to life by adding rennet to milk to cause coagulation.

Honestly I did not know what to expect when I signed up for this tour but I was really pleasantly surprised by the wide range of cheeses we were offered to taste. We enjoyed eight distinctly different varieties:

1. Creme Fraiche – I love this slightly more delicate version of sour cream. It is often just simply paired with one of my favorite food groups, fresh fruit at the peak of its season.

2. Fromage Blanc – Another very mild cheese but with wonderful subtle flavors.

3. Cottage Cheese – The tub in your grocery store just pales by comparison to the Cowgirl's version.

4. Aged Fromage Blanc – Totally different than its fresh counterpart above. I got some real floral essence coming through.

5. MT TAM – Reminiscent to Brie cheese with a buttery triple-cream elegance. In the world of wine it is just sparkling wine and not truly Champagne unless it is made in France. We learned the same goes for cheese when it comes to Brie.

6. ST PAT – Just in time for the Irish holiday this seasonal springtime cheese has a distinctive wrap of green nettle leaves. I loved the hint of artichoke flavor.

7. Red Hawk – Sporting a washed rind Red Hawk was the variety they were producing that day at the facility. It had the strongest odor by far, definitely what is called a stinky cheese.

8. Wagon Wheel – This variety is the newest release from the Girls and my personal favorite we tasted. It reminded me of a fresh Asiago and I could not wait to take some home and melt it on just about anything.

I learned a lot about cheese from Cheryl's presentation. Like how the grazing material greatly impacts taste and that Artisan means a single milk source. And great advice like not using your refrigerator to age cheese. I found the whole cheese tasting experience can be just as interesting and complex as wine. The only problem with Cowgirl Creamery is just trying to choose from their huge selection.

We could not resist taking a spin through the rest of Point Reyes Station which is a town that is built on charm. For a very small town this place packs a large gourmet foods punch like we discovered at Toby's marketplace which one of the many members of the Marin Organic organization supporting local agriculture.

Point Reyes Station is really in a world and era of its own. Don't waste your time trying to find a chain store in this quaint little town. Many of the businesses look like a set for a Hollywood period film like The Western Hotel atop the The Old Western Saloon.

And the rules for architecture seem to be defined only by imaginations like these old bicycle rims and reflective panels that hang from a building right in the heart of town.

While the Cowgirl Creamery was our target stop we certainly could not miss the plethora of other gourmet goodies offered by the purveyors at the Tomales Bay Foods center like this organic display from the Golden Point Produce.

As I was chatting with the lady from Golden Point it was obvious I had more than a casual interest in food. When I told her that we were on a food excursion to sample the local fare she almost insisted we try the flat bread at Vin Antico restaurant in San Rafael. My curiosity completely peaked when she described the food there as rustic so downtown San Rafael got instantly added to our GPS destination list. After all, a stop in San Rafael was completely on our way back to San Francisco for our final destination of this food tour.

The key to food touring is to pace yourself so we opted to split two of their flat bread items. One was just plain grilled and served with olive oil, orange zest and a balsamic reduction for dipping.

But the total flavor overload came from a pizza style flat bread just oozing with Crescenza Cheese, Creamy Leeks, White Truffle Oil and an oven roasted egg. Unreal!

Awaking from our food coma we decided to make haste to our final destination and always favorite food stop, The Ferry Building in San Francisco. Upon arrival we did take a moment to get a photo of it's famous tower.

Stacie's plan was to complete our cheese-a-licious journey with a couple of bites from the Cowgirl Creamery cheese-centric eatery they call Sidekick. After all, it is conveniently located right next door to their store. She had not stop talking about the raclette she tasted during her last visit to The Ferry Building so why not? A raclette is simply melted cheese on top of just about anything you like. We opted for their grilled asparagus and sliced toasted baguette for our base.

Here's a shot of the raclette machine itself. I so want one for my own kitchen!

And here's the Cowgirl Creamery finished raclette with roasted beet garnish. YUM!

Just as you'd expect the grilled cheese sandwich from the Cowgirls is not your run-of-the-mill variety. The surprise here are thinly sliced bites of dill you discover inside the cheesy goodness.

My parting shot is of one last bite of the roasted red and yellow beets to lighten things up. It was a day of cheese overload but I cannot wait to return for an encore with their curds and whey. My acronym for The Cowgirl Creamery is OSHA – Organic, Sustainable, Humane and Artisan. This is truly cheese at its very best.

More Food Adventures:

January - The Eats of San Francisco:
February - A Tasty Tour of Santa Cruz
March - The Cowgirl Creamery
April - Confessions of a Sushi Virgin
May - Best of the East Bay
June - Palo Alto Eateries
July - Cheap Eats & Secret Menus

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Carl Cooks: Mile High Lasagna Pie

It's been said that we eat with our eyes first which easily explains why I immediately snapped up this special edition of Italian recipes published by Better Homes and Gardens magazine off the newsstand. I am a self-confessed lasagna lover like the famous cartoon character, Garfield. Being a staple of pot luck dinners I feel the dish often gets a bad rap as being just another casserole. Lasagna is also fairly inexpensive to make and seldom seen on the menus of trendy restaurants. However, that doesn't mean it cannot taste great and ranks up there with the best of comfort foods in my book.

So when I saw this lasagna in the round I knew it was my calling to create my own version. After all, isn't the natural shape of a pie round? So here's how it all comes together.


14 Lasagna Noodles (I used fresh ones this time)
Olive Oil
Marinara Sauce (1 jar of your favorite. Mine is RAO's)
3 Zucchini
Fresh Baby Spinach (about 1 pound)
Fresh Cremini Mushrooms (about 1 pound)
Fresh Garlic Cloves
Fresh Basil (good handful)
Fresh Italian Parsley
Ricotta Cheese (1 15 oz. container)
Egg (1 whipped)
Parmesan Cheese (1 cup grated)
Italian Cheeses 2-3 cups shredded


Wash Spinach Leaves (or used pre-washed package)
Slice Zucchini
Slice Mushrooms
Mince Garlic Cloves
Chop Basil
Grate Cheeses
Beat Egg
Thoroughly combine egg, Ricotta and Parmesan cheese in mixing bowl

Lasagna is a lot like pizza. If you follow the basic rules, you can stuff it with any of your favorite flavors. I chose sauteed spinach, zucchini and mushrooms for my filling. It is a good idea to put some heat to all your vegetable ingredients before layering instead of using raw ones. I also knew that would be my chance to work in lots of garlic. In a previous post on grilled cheese sandwiches I elaborated on how to get a nice quick saute on baby spinach leaves in garlic oil.

Remove the slightly wilted spinach leaves and place them into a waiting bowl. Then use the same pan for your zucchini which will be nicely seasoned with garlic and olive oil.

Mushrooms vary greatly in size. Whatever type and size you choose make sure you brush them clean and slice/cut into a shape for a good saute.

Mushrooms take on just about any flavor you use to saute them. My favorite things to toss into the mix are butter, white wine, and just a sprinkle of fresh parsley. This part of the party makes your lasagna earthy.

Ricotta is very mild so combining it with the egg, Parmesan cheese and salt/pepper will kick up the flavor in addition to the texture it adds.

Layer Layer Layer in a springform pan
Bake at 375 for about one hour
Cool to set
Remove pan
Slice and Serve

Set up an assembly station. The rest of this process is strictly layering.

Begin and end the layering with your marinara sauce. Go slowly and make sure each layer includes some of the cheeses, veggies, sauce, noodles and basil. As you layer use a plate to press down on the layers insuring more stability and less air pockets.

After one hour at 375 let it cool down and set on a cooling rack.

Carefully remove the springfrom pan side and there you have it!

Zooming in for detail on the side this dish just oozes with melted cheese goodness and garlic sauteed veggies. I can't wait to take a bite!

A word about cheese. You can use any combination of the popular Italian varieties like Mozzarella, Provolone, Asiago, Fontina and Romano. I have always been partial to Mozzarella but recently I discovered the joy of Smoked Mozzarella and I might never be able to go back. It is now easy to find at places like Trader Joe's and it adds a whole new flavor dimension to one of the great melting cheeses.

And a word about food styling. To be honest I could not get my Mile High Lasagna Pie to look as good as the magazine cover right out of the oven. It was delicious but obviously made so by the hot and melted cheesy layers. So when sliced it just did not hold its shape like the photo. After sitting my fridge all night it made for a much sturdier model. The take away here is to worry first about how it TASTES for your guests. In this recipe try presenting it on a nice glass cake plate for dazzle. If it slips a bit when slicing, it won't matter at all when it finally hits their mouths.

Simple lasagna but presented in the round like any good pie should be. You will get compliments stacked a mile high. Oh Mamma Mia!