The view from my desk today is of a winter landscape with little green in sight. We have had a few inches of spring snow, perfect for encouraging the peas, lettuce, bok choy, kale and beets I planted last week. The apple tree growing outside the kitchen window is plump with snow-capped buds. Full of promise.
I’m dragging along in the kitchen, ready for new seasonal ingredients and the appearance of self-seeded arugula, parsley, and dill in my garden. Our meals include dishes I’ve made for months, as I depend on old favorites to get me through ’til spring and all its possibilities. My impulse is to stay home, to cook, however uninspired I may be. We did venture out for our first dinner in a restaurant with friends to celebrate Sherry’s exhibition and beautiful book. What a treat to see dear ones and choose our meal from a menu. Slowly, we reenter the world.
One old favorite is a chard tart, jokingly called a ‘charred’ tart by Bud. The crust dough I use is simple, delicious and healthy. I’ve written about it in other posts but here is the recipe from Patricia Wells.
Combine1 cup unbleached flour, a big pinch of salt, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup water. Press into tart/pie pan. Prebake at 375° for 15 minutes. This is a very amenable dough and does not shrink in the pan – no need to use weights.
For the tart, strip the bunch of chard leaves from stems. Slice crosswise about an inch wide. Chop stalks into 1-inch pieces. Sauté stalks in olive oil until tender, 5 minutes or so. Add the leaves and 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced, and cook until wilted and tender.
When cool, add a beaten large egg, 1/2 cup half-and-half, and a cup or so of grated cheddar, parmesan, gruyere or a combination. Spread in prebaked pastry shell and bake at 375° for 25 minutes.
I served the tart with a dish of lightly steamed asparagus, sliced almonds and capers, sautéed in butter.
For a first taste of spring, Evan brought a bunch of nettle tops from his garden, carefully clipped and trimmed for me. The leaves are very prickly and he prepared them with a glove and scissors. He promised to bring me nettle plants when the snow melts. I browsed in a few cookbooks for inspiration and read that nettles turn a vivid green when cooked. I settled on a basic soup recipe.
First, I sautéed a small onion, a carrot, and five very small red potatoes, all diced, in a tablespoon of olive oil and one of butter. When they softened, I added the nettles and about four cups of water. A chicken or veggie stock would have been good but I had neither. Cooked this about 25 minutes, cooled a bit, and blended to a smooth puree. Added salt and 2 tablespoons cream. At serving time, seasoned with lemon juice to taste.
We ate this spring tonic topped with a drizzle of yogurt.
The daffodils will bloom when the snow melts. I hope I do too.
On this gray, dreary, rainy St. Patrick’s Day, the abundant daffodils remind me that spring sits waiting. Our Lady in Waiting. March always dumps a good bit of ugliness, mixed with mud and treacherous winds, bringing down branches and creating a mess for the head gardener. She is no jovial spirit at these times. Why doesn’t she see the daffodils smiling at her, I say. And she says I’m just an old fool. Hmm, I say. She claims my frequent naps give me my edge. I tell her, follow nature’s cues, when it’s gray and gloomy, rain pounding the tin roof, your eyes closing, Mother N. says to nap. It’s that simple. She goes off in a huff.
At the beginning of March, I took out my collection of tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds, about 20 varieties of each, all members of the Solanaceae family (for you plant geeks). We’ve been saving seed since 1983 when we became members of the Seed Savers Exchange. In their 2021 catalog, I see we’re among the original 24 people in the organization. Only 24 of us left. That tells its own story.
These tomatoes and peppers come from all parts of the country, often with a history. When I come to the “O’s” in my tomato bag, I see Oxheart and remember I requested seed of that tomato for Mom, as she said that as a girl it had been her favorite tomato. When she was in her 80’s, I was able to travel back to Boulder with these Oxheart’s and surprise Mom with an heirloom. What a delight for her ─ she was transported.
As I looked through the seed collection, I took note of the year I saved seed of each variety. Every seed has an average viability time. These heirlooms have to be grown every few years to insure they’ll sprout. So I consider the age of the seeds and also what I MUST grow, my favorites. I riffle through and pull out the packets that I’ll use, then organize my labels and wet cloth scraps to pre-sprout the seed.
I fold the cloth for each variety with the slow care of an origami artist, after all, I’m looking into the making of life. Each variety of tomato, pepper and eggplant has its own piece of cloth, a label, the lot folded up into a silent, secure, damp chamber, waiting for magic to arrive and bring the seed out of dormancy, into life.
After a few days, I sit down with my bundles of seed and look for signs of sprouting. It feels a bit like Christmas as every sprouted seed brings a smile and a shout of joy, something much needed on these dreary late winter days. The Serrano pepper seed from 2003 sprouted after 5 days. Amazing to see that seed burst into life. I credit the cool, dry storage of these seeds, but still, that’s a long time to keep a seed waiting.
Once I’ve collected fresh seed of this pepper, I could compost the old Serrano seed. But I’ve learned from failures that sometimes the new seed isn’t viable. A sad moment. Now I hold on to the old seed until I’ve successfully germinated the new seed. I wish I could pass on the older seed, but like so many parts of life in this digital age, the logistics become staggering. Old seed doesn’t have value, when, like my friend Clayton says, “Seed’s so cheap.” I say that’s not the point, he brushes me off, laughs and moves on. I feel a bit like a fuddy duddy. Ok, I am one and like so many fuddy duddies, I play the role with pride.
I did have to cruelly chuckle last spring when he called and wanted to know where he could order seed ─ he couldn’t find seed, anywhere. I gave him what I could of my collection, names of seed companies, but he was too impatient and drove miles to find what he wanted. He also pooh-poohs saving seed as a hassle and doesn’t listen to me waxing poetic about my late winter ritual.
The sprouted seed goes in a flat, carefully labeled, and upstairs to a covered tray, where I wait for the seed to pop through the soil. As soon as the cotyledon bursts through, the flat goes under the LED fixture and the seedlings begin to grow luxuriantly with 16 hours of light a day. Once they have their first true leaves, I transplant each into its own container with compost instead of potting soil. I’m priming them for the big wide world. There’s no longer a danger of damping off, a fungal disease that affects newly sprouted seeds and seedlings, so real soil comes into play.
Once each plant has settled in, looks firmly rooted, and all danger of frost has passed, they’ll go out to the cold frame where they’ll feel sun and wind and begin to have an idea of what awaits them. They’ll be with the asparagus seedlings, the onions, the celery and cabbages; though these older transplants will soon find their way into the earth and learn many a lesson about survival. The real world and the cold frame run on different rules; the training wheels come off when the plants go into the garden.
For someone who works the earth, these are great adventures, equal to exploring the Amazon and deep sea diving. I’ve entrusted a once tiny seed into a mosaic of life, hoping, with my help, it figures out how to grow and prosper. I count on many helpers. Sadly, the polar vortex took 28 of our most beautiful workers, bluebirds. When I went to clean out their houses, after the cold weather passed, I found 19 crammed in one nest box. I nearly fainted with shock and disbelief.
After I recovered my equilibrium at such a sight, I called a friend at our Conservation Department. I’d sent her a photograph. She too was shocked but had heard from other Missourians about finding dead bluebirds in their yards. The cold was extreme. The bluebirds eat worms or berries and they couldn’t find either. The rest of the bird population ate suet and sunflower seed as never before and I kept them in fresh water as well as I could. The sub-zero temps stayed with us too long. The bluebirds faced a disaster of huge proportions.
I mourned for several days and when I found 9 more bluebirds packed in another bird house, I quietly buried them and moved on, shaking my head as I dug the holes. What more can we do? It will be a quiet spring without these lovely workers. I only hope they can reproduce in other parts of the state and slowly move back to this area.
This all shows the precariousness of life. March has a bad reputation in gardening books and lore. It’s looked upon as fickle and uncertain when really it’s we who haven’t learned that March is a time of transition. We need to move slowly and carefully and not expect spring to appear because we feel so ready. Hence the naps.
I like to think of March as the last hurrah before the intensity of the growing season. I still may have to cover the cold frame if frost arrives. The peach blossoms may get coaxed out too early and suffer an untimely loss and a few times the lilacs have also complained about the cold. Transitions invite stress, an inevitable part of life. We learn how to move with the changes and celebrate small victories, like this blooming spice bush and the electric blue squill. (I saw the head gardener bending down to admire them.)
March weather in Colorado may include almost anything. Rain, snow, sunshine, springlike breezes or wintry cold. This year, March came in like a lamb, sunny and warm, but has taken on the lion’s roar.
Yesterday, we arose to find that a heavy snow had fallen and to the start of daylight savings time. March weather in Colorado may include almost anything. Rain, snow, sunshine, springlike breezes or wintry cold. This year, March had arrived like a lamb but was now a roaring lion.
But yesterday I made a special breakfast. Back in the day we ate pancakes or waffles each Sunday morning but now I prepare them only as a treat when Zoë spends the night or like yesterday, when a warm breakfast seems the perfect meal to start a snowy day.
This recipe is based very loosely on a Marion Cunningham recipe in The Breakfast Book. I use it to make waffles and pancakes. You may vary the flours ─ substitute 1/2 cups of oat flour, rye or quinoa, but I would keep at least 1/2 cup of unbleached in the mix. We like granola in the batter to provide a little crunch.
Combine 1/2 cup each of unbleached flour, wholewheat flour, cornmeal and rolled oats or granola. Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt.
Stir in 2 large eggs, 1 1/2 cups milk, and 1/2 cup safflower or other vegetable oil.
Pour 1/2 cup of the batter into hot waffle iron and bake until brown and crisp. This makes about 6 waffles.
The recipe is easily cut in half to make enough for just the two of us.
Serve with maple syrup, a dollop of yogurt, and fruit such as the mango and banana pictured here.
When we have only apples, I sauté them, peeled and sliced, in a bit of butter for a delicious accompaniment.
The sun is shining this morning and the temperature is near 60°. Ah, Colorado, ah, March.
My daughter called while she drove Brady, my grandson, to school and I had a moment to say hello. I told him one week ago, it was 80° colder than today. He couldn’t believe it and said, “Wow!” On a 70° day, with sun pouring in, I try to remember what -10° felt like and the mindset I lived with those 3 weeks when the polar vortex made an appearance and decided to stay. Lots of the country was courted by a similar assault. We’ve learned new words to describe the uninvited guest.
In order to keep my sanity more or less intact, and to spend some time thinking about the coming spring, I decided to sit close to the fire and create woven plant protectors for some of my spring seedlings, the ones planted close to where the baby rabbits bed down. Last year they chose these young plants to play with, devastating the seedlings and the head gardener. It was not a pretty scene when she discovered the tyranny of the bunnies.
Over the years I’ve collected all kinds of vines and branches, roots and fibers, experimenting with their qualities. Some require drying and then re-soaking, as they shrink too much if not dried first, others, like honeysuckle, provide long weavers you can use fresh, or dry and then reconstitute. It’s a wonderful process to become acquainted with these materials and my fascination never ends. I find myself bending and weaving almost anything my hands touch.
For these teepeenies, or little teepees, I had fresh willow, dried willow, dried wisteria, and fresh native bamboo, plus some hazelnut branches Agnes and I had cut in warmer weather. I soaked what needed soaking and made a jig, then tried it out, making my first teepeenie. Hmmm, not so great. I made another and another.
As I learned, I realized I needed stouter uprights and a bigger diameter for an adequate teepeenie. I drilled larger holes in the jig to hold the stout uprights that I’d weave together to form the structure of the teepenie. I saw more clearly what I needed to do as I worked with the materials. I made accommodations by the hour as some things didn’t work, with some materials too flimsy or not flexible enough. Only when I began to feel chilly did I realize I had another job to do and should haul in more wood before continuing.
This concentrated effort kept my fingers engaged, my mind on spring and my admiration for weaving materials, and of weaving, alive. I would regroup each morning after my chores, a good breakfast and coffee, and see what I could come up with. From this photograph you can see the different materials and the different results.
The teepeenie who won first prize has fresh, green, native bamboo uprights and split green bamboo weavers at the base. The strength of the uprights and the weavers made this teepeenie a winner. It held together tightly so I could weave the rest using a randing weave* that will keep rabbit paws from reaching inside the frame. The way the bamboo uprights stick straight up, will keep the deer from nosing in to see if there’s anything good to eat. I’ll push the 8 uprights into the soil, adding a couple more bamboo pieces to stake the teepeenie firmly in place so no one can tip it over. Then I’ll watch the critters disprove my theories ─ a common event for any gardener who thinks she’s outfoxed the fox.
These supports will come out once the plants grow large enough to fend for themselves and rabbits have other delicacies to nibble on. Most of the teepeenies will survive for another season or two and in the meantime, more data will be collected for future frames.
When the weather warmed up to a high of 15°, I ventured away from the fire and onto the kitchen table, my winter transplanting site. The onion and asparagus seedlings had outgrown their flats and needed more room, the onions a haircut to stimulate bulb growth. Roots on seedlings mimic tree roots, the only difference being size. The roots have to anchor this onion and have succeeded, with loose soil to guide them. Once the seedlings go into the garden they will plow through the earth and find their home in deeper ground. The worms have created tunnels for them to glide through and for the rootlets to pick up nutrients, a process I marvel at when I see brand-spanking-new roots.
This asparagus seedling has another baby asparagus popping up. I know the focus is poor on this photograph, but I wanted you to see the lilliputian spear. And the roots too! This seedling, one month old, is 8” tall and has roots to match. We’ve grown all our asparagus from seed and a patch will produce reliably for 20 years, plus. After that, the crowns tend to crowd each other and the production declines, though you’ll always find some asparagus, just not prime spears.
One of the other jobs Agnes and I did before the “visitor” arrived was to cover the snowdrops that had begun to bloom. We raked leaves over them, as well as the rosemary plant in the culinary garden. After the vortex left, going wherever it goes after it’s done it’s work, I went out to see the snowdrops, undaunted, and the first of the winter aconites in bloom. The rosemary survived, if a little worse for wear. After such an ordeal, I feel more like the rosemary than the snowdrops.
*When you rand, you have one rod for each upright, and you weave one after the other. For these frames, I used two rods instead of one, so I could build the walls faster, as they didn’t need to be strong, simply a barrier.
Here in Colorado we are in the thick of winter. Most other years, lucky us, we have spent my February birthday in the tropics and cut our winter short by a few weeks. Not this covid year. The weather has been very cold with lows below zero. We can only dream of Hawai’i while listening to Gabby Pahunui play his melodious slake-key guitar. Here on Blue Mountain Road, the insulated shades are drawn and I listen to jazz and the blues on KUVO – the ‘Oasis in the City’.
I like to bake and we often have cookies for our lunch dessert. But sometimes, cake is just the thing to cheer us up with delicious baking aromas and the satisfying flavors of lemon, banana or vanilla. In these pandemic times, I’ve read that folks have eaten a lot of bananas, in banana bread and muffins and on breakfast granola. In Hawai’i, I celebrate a friend’s birthday with a banana cake, made with the small apple bananas we love. I recently fancied it up with walnuts and chocolate for a mid-February Colorado treat. This cake is also delicious on its own, simply topped with the lemon glaze. I call it ‘Everyday Cake’ in my book.
Preheat oven to 350°
Grease and flour two 8-9 inch layer cake pans, a fluted pan or a 9 inch springform. I used heart shaped layer cake pans in honor of Valentine’s Day.
Cream together 1 cup unsalted butter and 1 cup brown sugar (packed). Add 2 large eggs, then 1 cup mashed, ripe banana (2-3 medium-sized).
In another bowl or on a piece of wax paper, combine 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt. In a cup, combine 1 teaspoon vanilla and 5 tablespoons buttermilk, yogurt or soured milk (1/2 teaspoon lemon juice in 5 tablespoons milk. Let sit a few minutes until curdled.) Add to the butter mixturealternately with the flour mixture.
Pour into prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes, 35-40 minutes if using a tube pan or springform. Checkdonenesswith a toothpick.
Let the cake sit in it’s pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Unmold. When cool, spread bottom layer with 2-4 ounces of melted dark chocolate. If you used the springform or fluted pan, split the cake horizontallyand proceed with filling
Pour glaze over top layer ─ combine two teaspoons lemon juice, 1 cup sifted powdered sugar and some grated lemonzest. Sprinkle with toasted, chopped walnuts.
Roseanne brought me luscious, juicy lemons from her folks’ tree in Phoenix. Of course I had to make a lemon cake. I searched my cookbooks and came up with a hybrid recipe using olive oil.
Lemon Loaf Cake
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a 8-9 inch loaf pan and line with parchment, leaving extra on the long sides for easy unmolding.
Stir together 1/2 cup of olive oil and 1 cup sugar. Add 2 large eggs and the zest from a large lemon, about 1 tablespoon. Stir in 1 1/4 cups unbleached flour, 1/4 cup cornmeal, 1/4 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Then add 1/4 cup lemon juice, 3/8 cup (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) yogurt, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.
Spread in prepared loaf pan and bake for 45-60 minutes. Test with a toothpick for doneness.
Glaze while warm. (Combine 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 cup sifted powdered sugar and some grated lemon zest.) Cool on a rack.
So, I wish you were coming ’cause I baked a cake! One day…..
In rain, snow and the heat of summer people from the past show up at Strawdog. With a knock on the door or a look up from mowing I’ll see a strange face. After a few moments as I travel down once well-trodden paths, the memory’s rekindled. I can usually attach a name to the face. Sometimes it’s shocking to see what time has done, other times, like the latest, pure joy.
Since I’ve started writing for Barbara on her blog, I’ve had several of these knocks on the door, via an e-mail. Barbara figured out, by Googling Strawdog, that my writings come up and people who know about this piece of paradise, can enter. And this is what Saori did.
Saori was one of three Evergreen State College classmates who came to Strawdog in 1992. My niece Zoë, Barbara’s daughter, had asked Ron and me if they could come. They were 19 years old. They came for 3 weeks to do some sort of research project. We all know how much research most of us would do at this age. Still, it sounded like a fun adventure for them, and us.
Saori, Stacy, along with Smasher, her dog, and Zoë came with boundless energy and enthusiasm. We had lived on Strawdog for 10 years in what most Americans, even in 1992 would consider, old school ways. Cooking on a wood cook stove, doing laundry with a wringer washer, no television or stores close by, and an old truck for transportation. I can only imagine the shock for Stacy and Saori. Zoë had come to Strawdog often, with Hilary, my daughter, flying together from Boulder.
Now, and over the 29 years since their visit, I’ll flash on something about that June, stimulated by who knows what, just the fickle way memory works, and laugh. Sometimes I’ll cringe because my step-daughter Suzy didn’t give me the name of ‘Commandant’ for nothing. She gave me this title with affection and humor, but I don’t think everyone who has dealt with me sees me in the same light, and I may have pushed these neophytes too hard. No one complained to me directly, but….
Saori struggled with English back then. In the letter she wrote a few weeks ago, her English flowed smoothly and effortlessly. Still living in the North West, she makes jewelry and grows spring ephemerals from seed ─ mostly seed of bulbs that thrive in rocky locations, many from her native Japan. Her letter was thoughtful and filled with gratitude for the experience she had here. She also offered condolences for my loss of Ron. Needless to say, her letter filled me with longing and happiness. What a gift to be remembered, fondly, after so many years.
Saori sent photographs too. This one, of her milking Flora, is my favorite. When she came to Strawdog, she had one ambition ─ to learn how to milk a cow. None of the others shared her enthusiasm. I don’t remember how her lessons fit in with her schedule because rising early was not on her radar, and Flora came in early and expected to be milked and have her breakfast. I do know Saori succeeded and was so happy. In fact, to this day, when I’m really happy, I’ll shout “I so happy!” because this is what Saori said and it was infectious.
We’d drive to Westphalia, a German-Catholic town about 20 miles away to buy feed for Flora and the chickens. On our way, in the Ann Elizabeth, a truck we bought with money my mother won in the lottery, the girls would sit in the back, singing and mooing at the cows as we drove by. Here you can see Zoë and Stacy.
When Ron and I drove this way, we’d always stop in a little town before Westphalia, another German-Catholic town, Rich Fountain, where we bought a double-dipped ice cream cone for a nickel. When the older woman who ran this tiny store out of the bottom floor of her beautiful stone house died, we mourned her loss and the wonderful moments we had buying a treat from her. Zoë couldn’t remember if the store was in business when they visited. In my imagination, it was.
Ron loved this grain mill. He became friends with the men who ran it, always covered in dust from head to foot, the eyebrows especially, coated, covered, thick with this grain dust that had a lovely fragrance. The entire mill felt like a relic of the past that these folks in rural Westphalia kept alive. Ron would visit with the men over the sound of the grinding gears as I’d walk around, admiring the view from the hilltop where the steeple from this Catholic Church competed with the one in Rich Fountain.
The five of us spent quiet summer evenings. I remember one evening especially. All of us were sprawled over the sofa or chairs, maybe on the floor. I knew Saori wrote in Kanji, a logographic script. (That means that a character, instead of letters, represents a word or thought.) I had begun to study and enjoy haiku. I loved Basho. I asked Saori if she’d write Basho’s famous haiku about a frog jumping into a pond. She agreed and we proceeded to find a proper pen and paper.
Watching Saori quietly collect herself, and practice a few times before committing the haiku to paper, I watched a self-assured, confident, skilled young woman. Quite frankly, I was mesmerized. Inside me, the desire to learn kanji began to form. Seven years later I would meet a young Chinese woman at the library in Jefferson City who would help me begin the journey that Saori’s poise inspired.
These are the Japanese words for Basho’s haiku, and the English translation:
furuike ya old pond…
kawazu tobikomu a frog leaps in
mizu no oto water’s sound
As I admired the photographs from all those years ago, I was struck by the plants growing in the first quarter-acre. Everything looks so well-mulched and luxurious, especially the bed of comfrey and the garlic. Now that quarter-acre slowly returns to nature. I can no longer take care of so many gardens, and little by little, I give back what we once took.
Redbuds have volunteered in this plot. I’ve said yes to a half-dozen of them, pulling weeds and grasses from around their base. I’m still debating what large deciduous tree I’ll plant, maybe a pecan, maybe an oak of some kind. Or perhaps I’ll see what volunteers and take that as a sign of divine intervention. Whatever happens will seem good and lovely. To watch a piece of land you’ve grown to love become a new character seems as beautiful as watching a young woman grow into her beauty, like the three young women who came to Strawdog all those years ago.
During these months of staying at home when cooking has become an incessant daily chore, I have moments of kitchen fatigue when no food or recipe appeals. Those days we have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner. Then I get excited by a new recipe from the Smitten Kitchen, the New York Times or King Arthur Baking. I try a chicken curry or a loaf of Harvest Bread.
During the holidays I cooked a lot, sometimes with my daughter and husband as assistants. We made smoked salmon for Christmas dinner and spent the afternoon of New Year’s Eve making spinach pasta sheets and ricotta for a big pan of lasagna.
Zoë and Bud rolled the pasta dough into sheets. I cooked the milk and cream for ricotta.
With a simple tomato and garlic sauce, grated mozzarella and fresh basil, we were ready for the assembly.
Many layers later, we baked the lasagna and enjoyed it for our New Year’s Eve dinner.
Now I’m ready for simpler meals. One of my favorites is a savory tart accompanied by a salad. I use a wonderful, easy recipe from Patricia Wells for a simple, crisp, crust.
Combine 1 cup unbleached flour, a big pinch of salt, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup water. Press the dough into a 8 – 9 inch pie plate or tin. (I used a Betty Woodman dish.)
I don’t prebake the shell. If you do, prick the bottom but there’s no need to weight the pastry as this does not shrink (another recommendation for using the recipe). I make spinach, asparagus, tomato or cheese tarts with this dependable crust. Lately I’ve had a yen for caramelized onions.
Thinly slice two largish yellow onions and sauté over medium high heat in two tablespoons olive oil. When the onions have begun to soften, lower the heat and cover the pan. Continue to cook over low heat, about 25 minutes, until browned and caramelized. Watch so they do not burn, stirring every now and then.Uncover in the last 5 minutes and raise the heat a bit to further brown. Stir frequently.Cool.
Use a spoon to paint the bottom of the tart shell with a good tablespoon Dijon mustard.
Combine the cooled onions with 1/2 cup half-and-half or milk, 1 large egg, 3 ounces grated Gruyere or cheddar, and five or six grinds of black pepper. Fill the shell and bake at 375° for 25 – 30 minutes. The center may be slightly jiggly but will firm up as the tart settles.
Happy New Year and happy cooking ─ even if you make scrambled eggs for dinner.
Now that I’ve finished holiday duties, I can retreat into my little world, where the greatest satisfaction comes from little things. Like a vest I wear every day and a zipper that refused to cooperate. I’d washed the vest in the Maytag washer, and the zipper must’ve suffered some abuse when it went through the wringer. For a few days, I slipped the vest over my head, as I couldn’t unzip it. Once, I finally, after Herculean efforts, zipped it up. With free time, not dedicated to any special chore, I decided to figure out this zipper. We deal with these frustrations/challenges, countless times a day, especially if children and partners are involved, probably pets too. My solution came from oil. I applied a thin stream of sewing machine oil to the entire zipper, and then slid the zipper tab up and down, up and down, until it zipped like a well-oiled machine. That simply made my day.
I don’t work with a microscope, looking for ways to interfere with a virus trying to invade our bodies, I don’t drive a school bus for our children, and I don’t stand in an assembly line preparing chickens for supermarkets. I live a quiet life on an 80-acre piece of Ozark land where I gather twigs in the winter and steer off poison ivy in the growing season, not quite sure of what my role should be, but grateful to live in a country where I can follow my own path and celebrate, with loud shouts, my small victories.
I’d set a goal of cutting 20 canes of what I call our native bamboo. But it’s not a true bamboo, rather a giant cane that looks like miniature bamboo. The canes grow tall, like 10’, but not fat, so the head gardener can cut them with her hand-held pruners. If we don’t cut them, in one short year, the grove becomes so dense I can’t crawl inside to hide from her, the head gardener. Often she’ll do the cutting, but this year, with a mild late autumn, I’ve enjoyed the task.
So far I’ve cut 240 canes. They don’t quite fit in the shed I’ve designated for them, so I began to cut the tippy tops off, skinny but bushy. Since the grandsons won’t be here, I’ve decided to build a fort with these tops on the low limbs of the bald cypress, right next to the cane grove. I’ll pretend, something we’ve all become pros at during this time of our durance vile, they’re with me, by making this fort and sitting inside it. I can easily conjure the conversations, the requests for a sheet, more cookies, and couldn’t I smooth it out a little… In no time I’m laughing and carrying on like the goofy old lady I’ve become, convinced those boys are right here with me.
How about this new attraction on the front deck? I finally found the right material to string the spools on, the white wire from a three-wire electrical cord. A chickadee discovered it today and perched on one of the spools for a few seconds. I giggled with delight.
Several years ago my friend Kit sent me this quote from Mr. Longfellow: “The holiest of holidays are kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart.” She knows I spend most holidays like this, and kindly sent me this well-worn quote to validate my solitude. Now, we all celebrate with this sentiment.
“The Hit Man”, on a Jefferson City radio station, just played Gladys Knight and the Pips performing “Let there be peace on earth”. The next line is, “and let it begin with me”. Amen and hallelujah.
Coffee in Venice 2010, oil on board, 12 x 16 inches
It’s cold and snowy today on our Colorado hillside. I’m dreaming of vacations and wishing I could have coffee with my pals. Alas. I look forward to a brighter new year and the possibility of gathering with friends.
What a year it’s been. I’ve cooked and baked more than perhaps any other time. And mostly for the two of us. First thing each morning I think about the day’s menus and make a mental inventory of the fridge, pantry and freezer. What is at its use-by date? Do we have lettuce? Or parmesan? Should I defrost a package of chicken for a pot pie? What do I want to eat?
This time of year, the choice of produce is limited, but it is pomegranate and squash season, two of our favorites. Amidst the flurry of holiday baking, packing the boxes Bud has made out of rejected prints for delivery to friends, and making a trip to the post office to send a gift box to my sister, I squeezed in time to prepare this seasonal salad for our lunch. And it’s a beauty with the various greens, burnished gold squash, white fennel slivers and feta, and ruby red pomegranate seeds.
First, roast the butternut squash. Peel and seed a small squash, (or use half of a large squash). Cut into ½ inch slices, toss with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 400° for 15 minutes on a baking sheet lined with parchment – or on a grill pan. Turn and roast for an addition 5 – 10 minutes until tender and browned. (I often do this in my toaster oven.) Cut the slices into 1 ½ – inch, bite-sized pieces. These taste best at room temperature so cool but don’t refrigerate.
Prepare a bed of greens – a combination of red lettuce, romaine, endive, and best of all, arugula. Add the squash pieces and ½ a head of fennel, thinly sliced.
Toss the salad with a simple dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, all to taste. Add a light blanket of crumbled feta or goat cheese. Sprinkle with a handful of pomegranate seeds and one of toasted pepitas.
(Remember, this recipe is a guide, a template, not a rule. Use a proportion of the ingredients that suits the number of diners and your appetites.)
For a variation on this salad I marinated big Royal Corona beans from Rancho Gordo in a mustardy vinaigrette that included the zest of a lemon. At lunch time, I added some slivers of fennel and diced cheese – gruyere, cheddar or a Manchego. Arranged on a bed of arugula and topped with pomegranate seeds. (The biscuits are Buttery Sourdough Sandwich Biscuits, recipe at www.kingarthurbaking.com , recommended by my sister Susan. Delicious.)
For another delicious, festive treat I used the fresh cranberries and pecans left over from my traditional Thanksgiving preparations to make these muffins. Serve them with salads or enjoy with your morning coffee.
Cranberry Pecan Muffins
Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin by greasing the cups or adding paper liners. I prefer the crispy outside of muffins baked without paper. Preheat oven to 350°.
Toast 1 cup of pecans, then whizz half of them in the Cuisinart or blender until finely chopped. Coarsely chop the rest and set aside.
Cream together 6 tablespoons butter and ¾ cup brown sugar.
Stir in a large egg and ¾ teaspoon vanilla.
Add the ground pecans, 1 3/8 cups unbleached flour, 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt.
Stir in 3/8 cup milk and the zest of ½ an orange.
Add 1 cup fresh cranberries, thawed if frozen, and the chopped pecans.
Bake at 350° for 25- 30 minutes until brown and set when tested with a skewer. Makes 12 muffins.
On warm autumn days, after freezes and temperature drops, the garden takes on a new complexion, one I haven’t seen for a year, one that startles me a bit, but like an old friend, soon I remember this face. The familiar gestures, dried stalks of once vibrant tomato plants, bean pods draped high up on the bamboo tepees, (so high I’ll need a rake to dislodge), and zinnia seed harbored inside seed heads that look utterly dead, remind me of other autumns. So many secrets these plants hold about water, disease and fertility. Like reading tracks in the snow, a seasoned gardener learns about her garden as she dissembles it.
As I fill the wheel barrow with compost, I add bags and baskets, bowls too, for seed or seed pods I want to save. It looks a little confusing, so many containers, and still I have to run into the house for pen and paper as the head gardener made a rule: EVERYTHING MUST BE LABELED. PERIOD. And I see her spying me with that look in her eye. She well knows how many times I’ve puzzled over a collection of seed I simply KNEW, positively, absolutely no problem, and didn’t take the time to label. Sigh…
I cut a few heads off each zinnia plant as many folks have requested seed and then said, “that crimson one” or “the white one”. I could do this, but in order to save a special color I’d’ve needed to bag the flower so it wouldn’t get cross pollinated. Needless to say, I didn’t, and will let everyone know they’ll receive a mixed bag and tell them what they need to do if they want a pure strain.
Soon I have a half-filled grocery sack, more seed than my friends and I could ever use. When I pull off a dried petal, the seed clings to that petal, stout and unbendable if viable. It looks like a witch’s fingernail to me. I will keep the bag by the heating stove so the seed heads dry out completely before I thresh.
I save more native flower seed than domesticated. My friends at the wild flower nursery will advise me ─ sometimes the seed and the chaff look indistinguishable ─ and a quick call to Mervin or Michael will enlighten me. What a treasure to have experts to consult and learn the tricks of threshing, scarifying and other secrets that ensure a new crop of plants.
Bean vines twine around the trellis in a counter clockwise direction, easily observable in the autumn, when my attention can focus on such details. I use my pruners to cut the vines every foot and then pull them around the bamboo. They curl in such a neat way I think of making a wreath with them, and then good sense takes over and I toss the bits in the wheel barrow. It takes time to clean one teepee but with sunshine and blue skies, the task feels perfect and the clean trellis beautiful, ready for next spring.
The barriers I had put at the base of each teepee to keep the rabbits from nibbling, also get rolled up, tied and stored in the hay barn. Pieces of bamboo, from short to long also go in special places. This year they went into tomato cages, placed around the cattle panel trellises, that act like bins at a lumber yard. Why did it take me years to see this obvious solution? And the long, long pieces of bamboo? They simply go on top of the bamboo arbors, something I couldn’t do when we built curved arbors. It’s such fun to see my workshop prepared for winter. I smile with delight and appreciation of good weather to do the fussy work.
Order and organization give me great comfort. I remember cleaning my mom’s herb and spice shelf when I was 13, in Mom’s dream house on Clark Drive. I put everything in alphabetical order, combining duplicates and feeling so proud of the neatness. I don’t know if Mom kept it in good order, but if she did, like the head gardener, she could go about her chores without pause, looking for one thing or another.
And it’s the way of the woods, of nature. Think of all the micro-organisms, the fungi busy assimilating the detritus on the forest floor. So many busy workers, keeping everything under control, in order, often without the cooperation of man. We know something has gone amiss when forest fires rage or flooding occurs. The universe is often described as an orderly, harmonious organism and I do my best to cooperate and learn from all the systems.
The garden clean-up takes days, even weeks as there are so many piddly jobs. Sacks and bowls of seed clutter the summer kitchen. Everything has to be protected both from rain and mice. Every day a good breeze blows, I winnow a few varieties, a task I love. I go into an area of the gardens where if I lose some seed, it will fall on welcoming ground. Cleaned seed. I find this as beautiful as the seed pods. Would you laugh at me if I told you I’d rather have a bouquet of seed pods than jewels?
For years, when we first came here, I couldn’t bear to toss all the seed pods in the compost and began to hang them in the house, on 10’ long strings, ten feet high, near the library, over the desk. I ended up with 12 strings, 120’ of seed pods, dangling seed pods. When I’d lay on the floor to do my stretches, I’d look up into my vision of the universe. When people entered the house for the first time, they were drawn to this display. They thought I was drying herbs and it was difficult to explain my passion, so I demurred and let it pass, smiling and nodding.
Several years ago, I sensed my mortality and the chores the kids would have divesting my life. I decided it was time to take down these dust collectors. Phew!! and what a messy job! My son-in-law, Kerry, would be appalled at the dust and I could just hear him gasp. I happened to meet an artist interested in paper making and other fiber projects. She and her boyfriend came and took all the seed pods, with gusto.
The last blooming plant in the fall gardens is shungiku, the garland chrysanthemum. One year I took a bag of the dried flowers to my Chinese acupuncturist. She told me that during the Cultural Revolution she worked alongside many other young Chinese, picking the flowers of the chrysanthemum. She smiled as she remembered. When I said, how tedious, as the flowers are the size of a small fingernail, she said, no, no, it was good, it was fun and a peaceful job, we sat on little stools, and she giggled. She humbled me and I vowed not to complain.
Parsley in one cold frame, German winter lettuce in another, and Cimarron in yet another cold frame mark my morning and evening chores. I open the lids on sunny days, and by 3pm, have them closed. I’ll harvest enough fresh greens from these simple boxes to keep chlorophyll on my plate in the winter. The color cheers me when the rest of my plate looks bland.
I’ve started putting socks around the bases of the fig trees. Last year deer positively girdled every sprout before I realized what was going on. So this year they’ll receive protection. I’ll even try using pieces of soaker hose I can cut and wrap around the lower section of the sprouts.
Mulching with leaves and straw comes next. I mow through all the leaves and empty the mower bag on the gardens. Once I cut down the asparagus fronds, straw will cover this bed, and like the garlic bed, will look like one prepared in heaven. Good night, I say to them all. I won’t desert you. I’ll come by to admire the silent work you do as snow flies and hibernation invites us all.