On the 4th of July I took a fall and broke my hip and wrist. An unfortunate accident but aren’t they all. After a partial hip replacement and a pretty pink wrist cast, I’m home, getting stronger every day.
Zoë was in California on a mountain bike trip with friends when I fell. On her return, she moved into high gear, cooking and helping Bud at the house. They brought me lots of treats at the rehab center from granola and yogurt to lovely dinner salads, saving me from the dire menus offered to patients. My sister Susan visited with veggies and fruit and – Cheetos. I feel fortunate to have wonderful support from my family.
And from our friends. We have enjoyed dinner from Walt and Sheila – gazpacho, crab cakes and corn bread – and the pleasure of their company at dinner on the porch.
Sherry is a pal, making a meal each week. Poached salmon and a zucchini gratin, baked herby chicken, cornbread and salad with goat cheese and peaches. She and Jamie joined us last week for grilled salmon skewers (in a green sauce marinade), sauteed summer squash, and salad, with Colorado peaches and ice cream for dessert. I wish I had photographed these delicious meals.
Ana Maria cheered me up with her positive attitude and velvety cold cucumber soup, a leek tart and a loaf of spinach and feta bread.
Sandra came for a visit with a ready-to-bake lasagne from MoxieBakery in hand. Better yet, we had a wonderful conversation about books, art and life.
Peter and Denise brought dinner and stayed for a lovely evening on the porch eating a delicious Salade Niçoise and catching up on our lives.
Roseanne helps me make lunch and picks up groceries on her way to Shark’s Ink.
Zoë visits each weekend loaded with produce from the farmer’s market. She also brings the fruits of her cooking – jars of gazpacho, grain and lentil salads, a pan of terrific chilaquiles, and always, cookies.
Wow. Writing this makes me grateful again for these dear ones. Not to mention Bud, my rock through all this. He has taken over the chores I am unable to do such as laundry, cleaning, and helping me shower. He picks up things I drop and cheerfully ties my sneakers for walks in Apple Valley.
Thanks too to sisters Mimi and Susan for the phone talks that help me keep everything in perspective. I’ll be out of my cast soon and by the end of August, over the hip restrictions.
I am cooking some, using leftovers from the meals friends have provided and the bounty of the season. One of the first dishes I have made is adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi.
Roasted eggplant salad
Cut two long eggplants into ¾ inch slices, crosswise. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and brush or rub with plenty of olive oil, up to ¼ cup. As the eggplant absorbs the oil, add a bit more. Roast at 375° for 35 minutes until very tender. I used my toaster oven for this. No sense heating the house by using the big oven.
Meanwhile, cut a sweet red or yellow pepper into dice. Combine with 12 halved or quartered cherry tomatoes. Add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons olive oil, a big pinch of salt. (Ottolenghi calls for 3 tablespoons of capers and some of their brine. I didn’t have any so added the salt.) Let sit for at least 30 minutes – or overnight in the fridge.
Arrange the cooled eggplant slices on a platter, slightly overlapping. Top with the pepper salsa, 2-4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled, and a big handful of chopped cilantro. (The original recipe calls for torn fresh mozzarella.)
Still in the midst of the dog days of summer, I rise early and complete my rounds by noon. Walking into the gardens at 5:30, enough light comes through the horizon to show me the way. This morning, a breeze came up, moving the bottle brush and Canadian rye grasses as if autumn had arrived. I stand still, close my eyes, and revel in the coolness, soon to become a distant memory. These early hours trigger the bees and butterflies. I’ve found bees sound asleep, attached to a blossom, as if they crashed in a moment of ecstasy. And then I see the bee roused, looking for the first nectar of the day. The pipe vine swallowtails go high into the mimosa trees that seem to bloom forever. After those initial caterpillars the boys and I watched go into chrysalis (and hatch) I see hundreds and hundreds of caterpillars doing just that. Luckily, two enormous mimosa trees will give the newly minted butterflies unlimited nectar. The garden phlox comes on now too, plus the zinnias, so they will continue to feed in good style, the drought not affecting their food source.
After checking for squash bugs and picking the cucumbers and tomatoes, however sad they may look, I next fill the bird baths. The poor birds, wasps, frogs, all the critters, feel desperate for fresh water as the resident chipmunk will attest to, jumping up to the bird bath as a bird in flight. The deer come at night and drink from the bird baths in the Park. I push a wheelbarrow out to the Park with a full watering can and a 5 gallon bucket as full as I can safely deliver it those 200 feet. Of course I’m down on my hands and knees many times as I deliver water or check for bugs, so by the time I come back to the house to do my tai chi, make coffee, have breakfast and write in my journal, my knees are covered with soil and straw. No wonder I can never get either my fingernails or elephant knees clean.
Each day I set one task I want to accomplish. If I make this job something I’ve wanted to do for a good while, I’ll feel a sense of satisfaction and the heat and humidity won’t affect me. I try to find chores in the shade so I don’t wilt too soon. These paths I excavated with a hoe, and then smoothed with a rake, became essential this year. The American holly tree has grown so large I can’t easily push my wheelbarrow through the south border of the Cottage garden to the compost. The garden has spoken. We need another way. Plus, the Cottage garden covers so many square feet we’ve felt overwhelmed when we try to weed it all. Small victories seem important. If the job’s too big, like detassling 5 acres of corn, we lose hope and feel done in before we even begin. Dividing the garden into smaller, recognizable plots, with paths running through, helps organize the plants in the various plots and we’ll feel more satisfied with weeding one plot then another. (At least I hope we will. The head gardener has gone on vacation and will come back to several changes…)
Now as I stand in the shade where these paths have been carved out, I see a new scene, a different way to enjoy both the Cottage garden and the Medicinal garden where the gingko tree grows so majestically. A bench, a small bench, just enough for one person, will go here, in the shade. Such a quiet spot, perfect for spying on birds and butterflies, even that groundhog that likes to hide under the sauna. The site lays far enough away from the gingko tree to give perspective, some distance, and that changes everything as any new point of view can do if we relax and absorb the change. In this unrelenting heat and oppressive humidity, I seek out these shady retreats and ways to enjoy them even more. Sitting for a few minutes, listening for the call from some brave bird, makes me breathe deeper and feel renewed.
Last week neighbor Patrick called. He said he had rocks for me. I’d admired some along our county road as I rode with him to look for telephone poles Ron and I had stashed in the lower pasture. (Patrick needs posts for a project.) He had one HUGE rock I’d declined, but then wished I hadn’t. I confessed I’d thought about that rock since he’d shown it to me. He said he’d bring it too. His tractor has a king-sized bucket and he ended up bringing 3 bucketsful of impressive rocks, enough to create this short-cut path past the mimosa tree, into the Sycamore garden, to the path to the house, plus extra for the paths in the Cottage garden. He hand delivered each rock, except the two humungous ones and used the hydralics! as Petra would say, to move those two into place.
I hadn’t conceived of rocks that size for the barrier between the Sycamore garden and the garden phlox. I wanted a riprap wall from rocks I’d pick up along the roads, driving slowly in my Honda, with all the windows opened, pretending I was in our ‘62 International pickup, driving the back roads like we used to, one of us throwing rocks onto the bed of the truck, the other driving and scouting out more rocks. Well now I had a new perspective and would have to change my vision. I’d collected smaller rocks with the boys down at the creek. They mostly have holes in them or ledges or something that caught my fancy, as rocks will do, as we played in the creek. They’ll sit on top of the big guys and maybe a collection of even smaller ones will get flipped onto the big ones when I find a rock I can’t live without. Whatever, I continually look out the window at the new wall or when it’s not so blazing hot walk out and try adding a rock here or there. It’s more than I imagined but it will definitely tell the phlox it needs to keep in its space. Of course like all plants, it will find a way to slip across the boundary, and I will dig them out, give them to Petra or another eager gardener, and maintain my discipline over who grows where. Such a funny notion, that we can control the plant world, but most gardeners deal with that illusion until they can’t fight the plants anymore.
The crab apple tree Barbara painted came down during a storm this May. Jeremy cut it up while I was gone and when I came home I saw the souvenir he’d left. He told me, “You’ve rubbed off on me!” I liked that and I like the mare or the elephant or whatever you see in the carvings. Summer moves along and before you know it, I’ll be out at that pile of branches, making little ones out of big ones.
Summer is full-blown here on Blue Mountain Road. It’s been off and on weather ─ hot and dry, then cool and rainy. Not quite enough rain though. Afternoon skyscapes are dramatic with billowing white clouds building to the west and promising rain but often offering only drama. And in the evening, the sky is veiled with fiery orange, red and violet.
Thank goodness for the beauty of this landscape, a sanctuary in these distressing times.
The garden is planted and provides a few delicious vegetables. Arugula, lettuce, green onions, snap peas and kale are ready to harvest. Tomatoes and eggplant are flowering.
On one of the hottest days, I remembered a cold soup we love. First made for us years ago by artist Robert Kushner, this Indian soup is a Shark’s favorite. Simply whizzed in the blender then chilled, it’s perfect to start a summer meal.
Cold Avocado Soup
Combine in the blender 1 large ripe avocado, 1 cup coconut milk, 1 cup plain yogurt, a large clove of garlic, chopped, 1 jalapeño or to taste, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds, 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, a generous 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro. Add 2 cups cold water and blend until smooth. Add up to another cup of water to make a pourable soup. Adjust seasoning to taste. Chill and serve in small cups ─ this is a rich and spicy concoction.Garnish with cilantro leaves and/or a slice of avocado.
Summer fruits are coming into the markets. I scored some organic Colorado apricots and will make a crisp for friends at a long awaited dinner party.
The topping is a simple one ─ ½ cup each of flour, brown sugar, oats and butter, cut together and then crumbled over 1½ – 2 pounds of sliced fruit, (apricots, peaches, plums, apples), in a baking dish. Sprinkle fruit with a tablespoon or two of sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit. I like my apricots to retain their tang. Sliced almonds are a tasty addition. Or make the topping gluten-free by using almond meal in place of the flour. Bake for about 40 minutes at 350° until brown and bubbly. Makes six servings. Easily halved for 2-3.
Another nice treat to have on hand to accompany summer fruit or simply a cup of coffee is this more-ish cookie from David Lebovitz.
In a medium saucepan over low heat melt 8 tablespoons butter with 1 1/3 cups turbinado sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/3 cup water just until the butter melts, do not boil.
Remove from the heat and add 2 1/3 cups flour, ¼ teaspoon baking soda and 1 cup sliced almonds.
Line an 8-9 inch loaf pan with parchment and press dough into the pan, smoothing the top. Chill until firm, 2-3 hours.
Preheat oven to 325°. Remove dough from pan and using a sharp knife, slice it crosswise into rectangles, as thin as possible, 1/8 – 1/16 inch.
Place on baking sheets an inch apart and bake for 12 – 15 minutes, until slightly firm and a bit browned. Turn the cookies over and bake another 12 -15 minutes until crisp and deep golden brown. Cool on a rack. Makes 50 -70 cookies depending on thickness.
The rain finally materialized – in force. The driveway is a mess but the plants love it. Happy Fourth of July.
Aii yii yiii! As summer approaches, the head gardener’s temper has reached new heights. If not for my daughter’s class on conflict management, I may have gone over the edge. I bit my lower lip so many times it looked like a hive of bees stung me. Of course SHE never even noticed my lip. Yes, I know, it’s not about me, it’s about how we see the garden duties differently. And I respect her vision, she can just be so myopic, not give me any slack.
It started when the head gardener saw a “strange woman” mowing the grass, going lickety-split, (her words), showing her up and taking over one of her responsibilities. I’d given her time off while my daughter, Hilary and the boys were here. I thought she’d appreciate some free time but she must’ve driven by at least once a day that I could see. Who knows how often she actually drove by or even if she spied on us. I don’t really want to know, I just want peace and calm and some time off when I don’t have to feel guilty. Her calls would come and the lip biting would ensue.
When Brady and Logan come, I concentrate on them. I still have to do basic gardening chores, but mostly I cook what they love, take them to the creek, horse around, and soak up their enthusiasms. Brady tries to cream me at Monopoly. I, uhhum, “let him win”. Well, sort of. That’s another story. And Logan’s my bedmate. We sleep, all 4 of us, out on the summer kitchen, listening to the night sounds, watching the flickering of the fireflies, hearing rain on the tin roof, an armadillo scratching around under the house.
Hilary would get up at 4:45 to study for her class or work on a paper. (We three would sleep in until 6:30 or so. Logan would go from eyes completely closed to a sunny “Good morning”. That definitely warmed the cockles of me heart.) Hilary’s getting a master’s in Organizational Leadership and almost everything she studies has psychology involved. It’s fascinating to watch her stretch her mind into new fields after 23 years of flying a helicopter in the military. And she helps me stretch too, finding new ways to think about old ideas and not locking into a fixed way of thinking, hence I WILL deal with the head gardener.
We went to Mistaken Creek, a creek that runs through our bottom land, three or four times. It’s another world down there. No garden, but wild and carefree, plants of all sorts jumbled together as seed from upstream, overhanging trees, critters and whatnot, find their way into all sorts of nooks and crannies. I feel free, just like the boys must feel. I test myself on the plants, saying one name after another, while the boys are immediately into skipping stone mode. I’ve watched Brady go from not being able to skip at all (while his dad, Kerry, skipped with such power his arm made a whirring sound) to skipping stones all the way across Third Creek, 100 feet wide, hitting the rocks on the far side. He now has some of the power that awed me in his dad and an arm that never seems to tire. Logan, 2 ½ years younger, has caught on. He’s built like an attractive tank and will someday be a force to reckon with. Now he can’t quite compete with Brady, but we warn Brady, his time will come and it may not be pretty.
Roasting marshmallows in the coals of the cook stove took us into the evening of fireflies. They restrained themselves a few nights, having only 5 or 6 marshmallows, and then a few other nights they threw abandon to the wind and scarfed down so many Hilary and I felt sure they’d barf. They have stomachs designed for s’mores. And this year they were too tired to catch fireflies, hitting their beds early and zonking immediately.
Patrick, our neighbor, took the boys, one after the other, for a ride on his tractor, racing down the road to Mistaken Creek and back in jig time. It wasn’t a carnival ride but the boys had never been on a tractor and it was big stuff to them. Petra showed them the ponies, including a white Mustang, and offered the boys treats to give the ponies. They demurred saying they didn’t want to get that slobber all over them. That made me laugh as I watched how dirty they got when they play.
I try to remember childhood when the boys come. It’s a bit of a stretch because I also focus on keeping them safe and happy, providing them with their favorite foods, becoming a short order cook as the requests go from one meal to the next, never quite able to fit all the favorites in. We ended with dough gobs, a request from Hilary, remembering Ron making them and how she loved them. They’re a totally decadent treat, pieces of bread dough tossed into hot peanut oil, fried to perfection and eaten with honey and butter. The boys devoured them. Hilary and I did our best.
One Friday, an old friend from New Hampshire came to spend the day with us. Kit used to visit her parents in a neighboring town and her parents were my friends first. Kit and I met in 1998 and have been fast friends since. The boys took to her right away and we carried on as one big silly family. They even let her have some of their mac and cheese she coveted as we ate our adult meal.
Hilary found a pipevine swallowtail caterpillar as she mowed. Logan had a bug box so she brought it to him. It was a mature caterpillar and looked like it would go into chrysalis soon. We put that caterpillar and one Logan found on the screen door into this jar and in a few days they both had gone into chrysalis as if it was staged. Logan lamented he wouldn’t be able to see the caterpillar emerge, as he had learned in school it took several weeks. I’ll see it all and send him a picture, you readers too.
As we prepared to leave Strawdog, Brady commented that we’d go from the 1800’s to the digital world and video games, all in just a few hours. I felt amazed at his insight and willingness to comment on the two worlds. They’d go to a soccer camp in Saint Louis, staying with a friend of Hilary’s and her family, in what the boys rightly call a mansion. The day will come when Strawdog won’t appeal to them, so I treasure these moments with open-hearted gusto.
After spending a night in the mansion with Hilary and the boys, I came home to the fury of the head gardener. She was fuming in the driveway when I arrived and unleashed her anger at me before I could step out of the Honda. I felt tired and a little sad, the way you do when you leave people you love, and couldn’t quite focus on what she was saying. I asked her to come sit with me on the summer kitchen, have a glass of iced lemon balm tea. Lemon balm has anti-anxiety properties and I do believe the tea along with my new conflict management skills helped ease her tensions.
As we sat on the summer kitchen, a cool breeze blew, the fragrance of the catalpa flowers wafted in, along with songs from the Baltimore oriole and calls of the indigo bunting. I listened to her worries about getting the gardens planted, weeded, the peas harvested, the grass cut and on and on. She was almost frantic at the beginning but as she drank her tea and talked and talked, I saw her softening, opening up a tiny bit. When she quieted for a few minutes, I told her that Hilary cutting all the grass, all 6 plus hours’ worth of mowing, had freed me up. I’d planted all the beans, even some flower and herb seed. In a few short days, the gardens would be ready for summer and we could weed, prune, harvest, plant more beans as the peas finished up. The mowing would slow down, I assured her, as the heat of summer bore down, and we’d have more time for intensive weeding. I then told her how much I appreciated her patience with me as I had my vacation, how important it was for me to spend time with the family and wish that she would spend time with us too. She didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no. I hold out hope that she’ll allow herself to blend in with the family, laughing and joking, helping to make delicious meals and maybe even roasting marshmallows with the boys.
The garden beds have erupted with sprouts of volunteer hollyhocks, arugula, dill, cilantro and orach. Mostly red and green orach, (atriplex hortensis), the bosses of my garden beds, growing wherever they choose. According to the website The Laidback Gardener, orach was one of the “first vegetables cultivated by humans, known well before the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Middle Ages, orach was one of the most commonly grown vegetables in Eurasia and by the 17th and 18th centuries it had ‘conquered’ the Americas and Australia as well.”
These lovely little sprouts will grow to be over five feet tall with seed heads holding hundreds of potential plants. In spring I happily uproot baskets full and cook the small leaves in tarts and soups. Somehow, (I do admire their persistence and the beautiful seed stalks), many escape my harvesting and provide seeds for next year’s crop. I am ruthless after they attain their height but leave some to self-seed, however maddening they will be as they blanket the beds in spring.
On a recent phone call with Mimi she described a dish she was making for dinner. Her visiting friend Jesse had requested enchiladas made with foraged lamb’s quarters. (Jesse delights in finding edible wild plants.) I haven’t got lamb’s quarters but the orach will serve in their place. Mimi gave me her recipe – a some of this, some of that kind of recipe. Here is my version ─
After steaming the picked over greens with just the water clinging from washing, I squeezed out excess water, (save the juices for soup or as a chef’s treat). Chopped them and sautéed with several cloves of garlic (from the braid that was Mimi’s gift last year) in a tablespoon of oil.
I made a simple ranchero sauce with tomato sauce I had frozen last fall, (or use a 15 ounce can of chopped tomatoes), half an onion, chopped, a home-pickled jalapeño or chilé of your choosing, and a handful of chopped cilantro stems and leaves. I pureed these in the blender then fried the sauce in a bit of safflower oil until darkened and thickened – 10 minutes or so.
With a baking dish at hand, I softened six corn tortillas rubbed with a bit of oil on my comal then rolled them up with a couple tablespoons of the greens, a dollop of sauce and a small handful of grated Catamount cheese, (use cheddar, jack or whatever you have), and arranged in the dish topped with the rest of the sauce and grated cheese.
I baked them in the toaster oven, covered with foil, at 350° for about 20 minutes, then uncovered for 10 minutes until hot and bubbly. Garnish with cilantro, sour cream, avocado, a fried egg or whatever you fancy. They’re delicious on their own too.
If you would like to grow orach, send me a note and I will save seeds for you this fall. Beware – this beautiful plant is very vigorous and will cover your garden with maroon sprouts. They’re easy to spot, so pull them out and EAT them.
One chilly, rainy spring afternoon, the sofa invited me to rest. I settled down, all nice and cozy, with a favorite spring tonic, Barbara Pond’s A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, given to me 35 years ago by my sister Barbara, with an inscription, “I love these familiar little plants with the lovely names.” I never tire of reading that inscription, spring after spring, with the knowledge Barbara found charm in wayside herbs like I do. If you’ve never looked at an old herbal, you won’t understand the fantasy and magic these herbals give to those who dare enter within.
A few days before, Brother Cadfael and I stood where his garden meets the Cottage Garden, both of us with hoes in hand, standing with them as a support of sorts or perhaps as a badge of honor. We smiled at each other when we stood up from our hoeing and admired the cool day, the fragrance of the first iris, and the lushness of the hillsides. He thanked me again for allowing him to take over what was the butterfly garden. He has a dozen monkshood flowers growing well now and many spring ephemerals have shown their sweet faces.
He had hoed down the elderberries explaining that they grew in other gardens and shrub borders and wouldn’t I agree this would make a far better location for special herbs for his remedies and of course flowers for the altar and for the infirm and ? “Without question”, I replied. He knows the uses for so many of the wayside herbs that creep into any area that doesn’t get mowed excessively or that grow under a tree with leaner soil, and I can come to him with my queries. He’ll show me a tincture he’s made or explain what part of an herb to use to treat an ill. I could listen to him all day but we both feel anxious to return to our labors and probably find more comfort in just knowing the other one works the earth in much the same way, with bowed head and contented mind.
My love of plants makes most people yawn or say something like, “that’s nice.” Kinda like what I do when the locals start talking about who’s related to who and so and so is their second cousin twice removed. I go into a trance at such talk and can never keep track of it all. And I’ve been called on it. “I told you she was my mother’s own cousin’s aunt.” Don’t quote me. I never repeat it quite right and my genealogical-minded friends just shake their heads. When they say, “It’s history!” I’ll say, yes, just not the variety I want to dive into.
As the years went by and my interest in plants increased I began studying the flora of Missouri. I wanted to know all of the plants in one family, just because it fascinated me to know which ones were intimately related. The most fascinating discovery was when I learned poison ivy, cashews, mangoes, and pistachios all belong to the same family. (Anacardiaceae for you plant nerds.) My mind expanded by several magnitudes. Wow! I said to myself.
On hot summer days I’d sit under the fan with Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri and make lists of all the plants in the buttercup family – for instance, clematis, columbine, anemones, delphinium. And get this, they’re all poisonous to some degree or another, especially in early spring, to both man and animals. (Think of all the times we put a buttercup under our chins to see if our skin would glow, which meant we liked butter…) I’d go from one family to another, making these lists, then studying them. As soon as I see a new plant, I look for something to recognize its heritage. So I understand folks into genealogy.
I sit among the wayside herbs under shady trees taking note of how the agrimony has spread. (Remember? It has flowers that smell like apricots, belongs to the rose family.) Or I watch this fight for survival by the noble frog. (He won, I might add, after 5 minutes or so of struggle. I was tempted to intervene but firmly believe, mostly, we should let nature go about its changes.)
As I sit, or kneel, or lie down amongst it all, I inevitably find seedlings of every sort of tree, (it’s under a tree, no less), and what do birds do but perch and purge. It still astounds me to find 5 or 6 cedar seedlings in less than a square foot.
Summer has kicked in now. No time for idle ramblings or thoughts, it’s all about getting everything planted, seeds sown. Idleness will come during the dog days. These photographs show some of the beauty and variety of plants on Strawdog. I see Cadfael out and about in the cool of the evenings, strolling around, bending over to smell or taste, sometimes picking small bouquets. Of course that delights me as did a surprise visit the other evening.
I was pounding T-posts in for the tomato cages with a heavy tool that fits inside the post and has handles on the sides to bring home the post. When you heave down on it, the sound travels far and wide. Petra heard me across the road and sent her knight in shining armor, Patrick, to assist me. I’ve never had anyone stop by, out of the blue, to help me, so I felt flabbergasted. He insisted on helping, loyal to Petra’s wishes that I not do such a chore. I demurred and actually enjoyed watching his effortless labor, sending each post in with two strokes instead of the four I required. We carried on pleasant, happy banter and before I knew it, all twelve of the posts stood tall and proud. As Patrick began to leave, I eyed the asparagus, another spring tonic, and realized I hadn’t picked it that day. So with Patrick on one side of the bed, me on the other, we picked enough spears for them to have a meal. There will be more asparagus and I see cookies in his future too.
When Zoë was a child she awoke on Easter morning to find a wicker basket full of chocolate bunnies, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and jelly beans. Now for our spring celebration, Bud makes small paper baskets out of discarded prints, one for each guest at Easter lunch. Over the years we have saved them to hang in our china cupboard, a reminder of the artists who made the prints and the cheerful call of spring.
This year he used discards of Kara Maria’s new print for the baskets I filled with chocolate and sour jellies. Zoë, my sister Susan, Charles, Corey, Liz and new addition, Lilikoi, joined us for lunch on Sunday. This was three-month-old Lilikoi’s first outing for a party. And our first in-person sight of our sweet grand-niece.
I set the table with a tablecloth, linen napkins and my mom’s china, a pattern of gold leaves encircling the plates. For lunch, we ate a smoked salmon tart, an asparagus frittata, a kale, beet and carrot salad from Zoë, and for dessert, homemade pound cake and strawberries from Susan. I wrote about the tart here – https://wordpress.com/post/howilearnedtocookanartistslife.blog/1985
The frittata recipe is from The Smitten Kitchen. I particularly like this method of preparing the asparagus. Enough for 2 – 3. For our Easter lunch I doubled the recipe and used a bigger skillet.
Wash 1/4 pound or so of asparagus, thick stalks work best. No need to snap off the ends. Lay each stalk on a cutting board and shave into ribbons with a vegetable peeler, starting from the tough end. Discard tough stalks. Beat together 4 large eggs, a tablespoon of cream or half-and-half, a good pinch of salt and fresh pepper. Add a thinly sliced green onion. (I didn’t have these so add chopped dill. I prefer the onion.) Stir the asparagus into the eggs, coating each strand.
Heat an 8-inch skillet over medium heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil, swishing the oil up the sides. Add the egg mixture and nudge the asparagus to spread out evenly. Cook gently for about 5 minutes until edges are set but center is loose. Top with crumbles of goat cheese (1 – 2 ounces) and transfer skillet to the broiler. Cook until top is set, 1 – 3 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The wild plum trees along Apple Valley Road are breaking out in fragrant blossom. Each year I await this intoxicating bloom to breath in the fleeting aroma and store for a year’s worth of scent memory. Enjoy the new growth and promise of spring.
On one of Dad’s early trips to Strawdog, he told me when I saw the first robin in spring, to think of him. He loved that bird. We were sitting on the bench under the crab apple tree where he’d go to roll his cigarettes and sit to look out at the world. He sat and looked a lot, overcome by beauty and appreciation so that joy would burst out of him in a shit-eating grin. He’d laugh, smile that crazy smile, and shake his head in utter disbelief and say something like, “Gee-sus Mariah!”
This year, a few days before spring arrived, I felt confused. Early in the morning, before the sun appeared, I went out to hang the bird feeder and the suet and was bowled over by sound pouring from every direction, in volumes so loud I needed earplugs. Everywhere I looked I saw robins. Not ten or twenty, and surely not that one to remind me of Dad, but hundreds, perhaps thousands. They were in the trees, on the ground, flying, quarreling, trying to steal the holly berries from the mockingbirds, drinking out of the bird baths, carrying on as if they owned the place and had called Strawdog home for years and years.
This has continued, every morning, early. More and more robins arrive, the expanding chorus becoming familiar. By 9 am they’ve moved on, a few remaining, scattered here and there, perhaps the ones who’ve won nesting rights. In the evenings, I see some in the cedars and other trees, bedding down for the night. I wonder how long I’ll have these visitors and what message Dad sends me and why I can’t decipher it. I also think of all the fertilizer they’re leaving behind and the pounds of meat they devour. Whatever the exchange, it seems more than fair because I have the pleasure of witnessing an amazing phenomenon.
When the neighbors arrived on their tractor, the bucket loaded with a gift of horse manure, Patrick said, “Your robins have come over to our place. I can’t believe how many there are! I don’t know what’s going on, but thanks for sharing.” I laughed as he emptied the bucket and asked them if this would be a good time for them to get starts of some shrubs and bulbs. Yes, they said, as they pulled out their shovels and jumped down from the tractor. We spent the rest of the afternoon going from bridal veil to forsythia to lilacs and everything in between.
Petra dug carefully and with respect. Forty years ago I could’ve been her, digging things from abandoned farm yards, along the roadways, from Eunice’s yard – a cranky old woman who ran a rototiller at 85 and who Ron would help in every way possible only to have her find fault. Petra kept saying how generous I was. “It’s not me who’s generous, Petra, it’s the earth. Gardeners love to share. Mostly! You may see my greed if you ask for a start of the Roman hyacinth.” Oh the fragrance of that early flower. I couldn’t choose between it, lily of the valley, lilac, mignonette and of course old fashioned roses. So what does someone with such a decision do? She grows them all, of course. Petra says she wants one of everything that grows on Strawdog and I smile at her enthusiasm.
She texted me that night at 9 pm and said they’d put everything in the ground and Yippee! I wrote back that I was impressed and hoped they’d take a long soak in their super-sized tub. They had done in five hours what would now take me more than several hard days to transplant, forty years after coming to Strawdog. Time moves on and reminds us, in case we hadn’t noticed, in not so subtle ways.
Having young neighbors move in right across the county road feels like a gift. I like hearing Patrick working, calling the dogs, driving the tractor down to the barn. It’s nice to call and ask them to help me move a cold frame or to troubleshoot a problem. Somehow the sounds of human life close by feels comforting after these years of the pandemic, isolation and a strange mental state from it all.
Don’t tell the birds this. I know they think of me as their main friend, and I certainly would feel lost without them. If I forget to put up the feeders, the birds let me know. When I’m stuck inside on a rainy day, I need to look out and see life. Watching their antics pulls me out of myself, especially when I start worrying about the state of the world. As many wise people have said, the world hasn’t changed, only our awareness. I celebrate the human spirit when I hear a Ukrainian say, “Yes, I may not survive this day, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a coffee with a friend or get my hair cut. We have to keep on living as long as we are.” Amen and hallelujah. I offer up my joy and every seed I sow to those brave people.
Maybe that’s the message Dad sends me via the robins. Celebrate life. Celebrate spring. Revel in the cheerful colors, the buds, the nest building, the return of old favorites and all the memories they hold. Forty years ago we cheered when we saw one bird and now “we planted it and they came”, a favorite adage of the native plant movement. Everyday I reinvent myself – or find myself. It’s an easy thing to lose, to forget who I want to be. I look across the road and see Petra’s forsythia shrub blooming! yes blooming, and I smile that same smile of Dad’s and exclaim, in his honor, “Gee-suss Mariah!”
Our March weather has varied from warm, sunny days to cold, snowy ones. All winter we have watched from the dining room table as birds storm the feeders ─ finches, juncos, jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, magpies, and nuthatches.
Now, on spring-like days, they flock to the feeders in the cool of early morning but as the day warms are beaten out by mobs of bees. Yes, bees. We have a new mixture of birdseed and with nothing blooming something in it attracts bees. What a sight – bees swarming in and around the feeders. The juncos hop around to eat seed on the ground and sometimes attempt to land on the feeder perches but when it’s warm, the bees win. We’ve watched deer chowing down on the dropped seed and two grey foxes regularly visit in the evening to clean up after the birds and bees.
A lesson in accepting the unusual, the unexpected. Much like the state of the world.
My mood has been up and down with the news and the weather. I haven’t been inspired to cook and our meals include easily made dishes from my repertoire. Not that they aren’t tasty meals, just not brilliant.
I wrote about a favorite soup from my childhood, Campbell’s Bean with Bacon, in my book. I still make something similar and during the latest snowy days made a pot of Spicy Bean Soup.
I got a new variety of bean in the last Rancho Gordo bean club shipment, the Whipple, and cooked them to use for our soup. Use canned, drained pinto or black beans if that’s what you have. Need I mention how exceptional home-cooked beans taste?
Sauté a chopped, medium-sized yellow onion and a large diced carrot, in a couple tablespoons safflower oil or bacon fat. Cook gently for 10 minutes then add a handful of minced cilantro stems (save the leaves for garnish) and 4-5 slivered cloves of garlic and cook for a minute. Stir in 2-3 cups of cooked beans and 3 cups of the cooking liquor, or however much you have. Add water or veggie broth to make 3 cups of liquid. Stir in a generous tablespoon of tomato paste and one of chipotle puree. I couldn’t find my usual chipotles en adobo but bought a nice jar from Frontera. Easy to use and delicious.
Cook over low heat until veggies are very tender. Cool a bit then puree half the soup in the blender and add to unblended half. Thin with water or stock to desired thickness. Taste for salt and additional chipotle. Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and chopped cilantro leaves.
I rarely use the entire tin of tomato paste in a recipe so I store the extra in the freezer. Place tablespoon dabs on a piece of wax paper. Fold over and freeze in a plastic bag . Easy to peel off the paper and toss into a soup or sauce.
Keep your winter jacket handy in the changeable weather and watch for those green sprouts. Spring is on her way.
On a warmish February afternoon, the head gardener and I got together, outside, (the pandemic still rages in this rural area) to discuss our coming spring duties. It was good to see her after the huge snow and ice storm, well, to see anyone, as visitors have seemed scarce. I pulled a Job’s Tear seed out of my pocket and asked her if she knew this bead was a grain crop too. I told her I’d done some research after admiring the curtain I’d made from the seed, first sown in 1987. I’d vaguely recalled the seeds made a cereal but I couldn’t imagine eating such a cereal as the husk on the seed was so hard. In my research, I discovered there were seed varieties that produced softer shells and the shell could come off simply by squeezing, that it would cook up as a large barley grain and wouldn’t it be fun to try that?
Oh my. That sent her on a tear. “There you go again. You’re always coming up with some harebrained project like when you had me drive my Jeep over the black walnuts to take off the husks, or the hours we spent shelling those tiny hazelnuts. And then there’s the devil’s claw! Who in their right mind would even consider shelling those tiny seeds. Then…”
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I do come up with some crazy schemes. They arrive because of curiosity, that wonderful gift that opens up the world, shows us what our ancestors had to do to make a life, and keeps me engaged in growing varieties from all over the world. Do you…”
“Really? This is how you want to approach our spring work? You want to waste our time thinking about such a trivial thing as Job’s Tears making a cereal? I thought this would be a serious work meeting. We still have plots to burn, copses to thin, bamboo to cut. And we haven’t decided what varieties to grow this year and there you go talking poetry. Get out your clip board and let’s get to work.”
And we did. She IS the head gardener and no doubt I’m the dreamer. I should’ve learned my lesson by now, that the two will tangle. But she’s good for me so I humor her and don’t let her caustic remarks do anything but amuse me. It was a productive session. We still have 5 weeks before we’ll begin serious sowing of seed. She took the clipboard and made lists that will keep me on track, away from dreaming, at least in her presence. But with you, I can express a few of my trivial thoughts, my poetic gestures. If you laugh, it will be with a sense of camaraderie ─ don’t most of us have a bit of poet in us?
The Job’s Tears have disappeared from the gardens but I’ve decided to sneak a few seeds into the cottage garden. They’ll mix nicely with all the other perennials and should the head gardener spy one, I’ll simply say, “Oh my, the miracle of longevity. Seeds can endure for centuries” and continue weeding, head down, giggling.
I do admire the curtain I made probably 30 years ago. The ends of the strings, each with 144 beads, come at the perfect height for our little rodent visitors to sample when food stores dwindle. Then I have to take down the strand and restring the beads, much easier now as the hole, through drying, has enlarged so the needle pierces them easily. And I do want to try to shell one of these seeds, just one, to feel what it feels like, knowing there’s a machine to do that task now, though early on, 4000 years ago in India, the job probably fell to women as they sat in circles and visited.
Devils’ Claw became part of our seed collection when I learned the Pima and Papago basket makers used the fibers in these claws for the black decoration in their coiled baskets. My fascination with all things limber enough to make a basket came early on, in junior high, in an art class with Miss Winecke, though I didn’t have sense enough to pursue my interest then, something about hormones. The class was in the basement at Malcolm Price Laboratory School, a corner room. There was a potter’s wheel and lots of art supplies. A wood and metal shop was close by. I tried that too and made a cool wooden table lamp I still have.
It wasn’t until coming to Strawdog and walking the woods, the fields, that I touched everything to see if it would bend. I’ve only made a couple coiled baskets and never pounded the fibers in the claws to make weaving material, but I use the claws as a frame for a soap dish or a Spanish galleon, braving all weather, to hold treasures from a snapping turtle’s shell and stones from the beach at Cardiff by the Sea, laden with fond memories.
If the head gardener saw the washtub filled with Devil’s Claws, collected over the years, she’d gasp with alarm. These claws are virtually indestructible. I use them in hanging sculptures and made this one, called Somersault as a fun tribute to the agility of these claws. The birds pick out the seeds but a few always end up somewhere in the gardens. I allow one or two plants to grow, as the flower looks beautiful, like an orchid, and everyone who sees the plant wants one. I only caution those who have horses, as one of these claws lodged in the horse’s hoof would be painful.
And yes, it was laborious picking out the meat from the seed. Such tiny things. I made this simple jig to hold the seed and used a small tack hammer to crack the shell. Not only did the head gardener help me, but I remember sitting by the fire with my daughter-in-law, Lynda, doing the same. She enjoyed it as much as I did.
We used the same jig for the hazelnuts. The nuts would vary in size, never the large nuts like they grow in the Pacific northwest, but small ones, squirrel-sized. And delicious. The husks so frilly and wonderful. Now the squirrels claim them all, something I should point out to the head gardener to garner a few points on the practical side of her ledger.
On a very cold, icy day, I made new shelf paper for our shelves, inspired by Ma in Little House On the Prairie, though she wouldn’t have had the paper punch I did and would have had to use a nail to make the starlight. Frivolous beyond words, no doubt.
And so go the fading days of winter. He has begun to lose a bit of his grip though we will have more cold, more ice and more snow. The promise Gertrude Jekyll wrote about in Wood and Garden stays with me: “There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” Maybe just maybe, I should write that thought on a card and send it to the head gardener. Does that not seem like a piece of pure brilliance! If the grand dame of gardening can have such poetic thoughts, why not a humble acolyte in these Ozark hills?