Putting the gardens to bed

BY MIMI HEDL

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.

After the fires

From mid-August until recently our valley was filled, off and on, with smoke and ash, yellow light.  We were surrounded by the threat of three fires.  With nearby Apple Valley under a pre-evacuation order we began to make a plan ‘in case’.  In 2002, during the nearby Big Elk fire, we had watched flames just a couple ridges away and prepared boxes with important papers and objects, passports, insurance docs, high school yearbooks(!) and photographs to grab if we had to leave. This year, we revisited those choices of what was important.  I threw out early versions of ‘How I Learned to Cook…’ and added my painting inventory books and our artist guest books.

Each day as I prepare meals, I regard the ordinary objects that I use.  The small, orange Le Creuset saucepan, perfect for so many things, my patina-ed wooden spoons, the sugar bowl made by my sister Susan, and the tiny basket Mimi wove so long ago with holy palms.  They would all be gone in a fire. They have no value but the value I assign with my daily appreciation of these, in the scheme of things, insignificant objects.

La Espina 1991, pastel on paper, 41 x 30 inches

Our daughter Zoë is a naturalist who works as the acting director of the Fort Collins Natural Areas program.  Since girlhood, she has introduced Bud and me to many wonderful places in the West ─ Canyonlands in Utah, the Colorado National Monument, various hiking spots in her neighborhood ─ Red Mountain, Soapstone Prairie, and Bobcat Ridge. The fires have changed many of these places.  Trees and shrubs are gone, landmarks are transformed.  She wrote this:

One of our natural areas, Bobcat Ridge, burned on Saturday. All the structures are okay, but it’s totally blackened. Today the ash is raining down from the fire by Grand Lake (was evacuated today, along with Estes Park because the fire crossed the Continental Divide), East Troublesome it’s called.

As I rode home on my bike from my one day a week at the office, the sky was an eerie grey yellow, street lights were on, and bits of ash were hitting me in the face, swirling on the pavement. I thought to myself, those are the remains of living beings. Those ashes are cremated remains of trees, grasses, wildflowers, insects, animals. We are surrounded by death. It is profoundly, deeply sad.

Even more sad that we knew this was coming due to the beetle kill, fire suppression and a century of mismanagement. We didn’t do enough. 2020 is the year of reckoning, the comeuppance year in so many ways. We are reaping what we have sown.

Things WILL get better. In the meantime, one day at a time. That seems manageable. We are surrounded by beauty and kindness too.

So, again, our daughter has taught me.  She sees the big picture as I see the small.  After this snow fall, the fires seem to be under control. The fire fighters are such heroes. I gaze at the ponderosas that shelter my tai chi space and thank them. I smell the fresh, clean air and watch the snow slowly melt from the slopes of Mt. Audubon, grateful to be here with all this beauty.

And for a sweet ending, make the plum tart ─ https://wordpress.com/post/howilearnedtocookanartistslife.blog/995 ─ using pears in place of plums.

Season the batter with some lemon zest and top with three peeled, sliced pears and a sprinkle of coarse sugar.

Summer becomes autumn

Mimi Hedl

This scene is repeated a hundred times at Strawdog Farm.

I know it’s going to happen. I’ve watched summer become autumn more times than I can believe, but still, every time, every time there’s an ending to what I’ve grown accustomed to, it feels like it’s never happened before.

Yesterday, the 3rd of October, I had the first fire in the heating stove, a date I record year after year. That night the temperature dipped to 39°. I wore heavy socks, a sweat shirt and sweat pants to bed. I haven’t abandoned the summer kitchen, the screened-in porch where I live in the summer time. That’ll happen when I can’t sleep because my brain keeps telling me I’m cold.

 I still want that gold star the Universe bestows on those who soldier on, believing that enduring the cold earns me a star by my name. I loved those stars in elementary school, gold, red, silver and blue and it still feels good when one comes down from the Universe. Plus, living on the porch, I have a kinship with the moon and stars, the wind and all the night sounds. Once I fold up my bed and put it away for the winter, I’ve said farewell to it all.

When I do give in and retreat to the house, the sequestered heat makes me feel cozy and loved. Deliciously so.  I may mourn the end of my adventures outside, but I feel grateful for a warm home.

 I mark the end of summer when the monarchs leave. I’ll watch their numbers grow from one day to the next when the asters begin to bloom in mid-September. I’ll see 20 monarchs, then 40 and suddenly the monarchs increase exponentially. They’re everywhere. I know some serious business goes down.

On the last day of September, hundreds of monarchs dipped into the asters. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see so many butterflies bouncing from flower to flower. It’s a celebrity sighting. I called several friends to let them know the migration seemed in full force and to come. They said they couldn’t visit that day but would come Friday or Saturday. I told them I had no control of what might happen.

And sure enough, the next day the temperature dropped and the scores and scores of monarchs I saw bedding down in the red bud trees the evening before, disappeared. Just like that. I’ve seen a few stragglers since, but I imagine what I witnessed on that September day was the sign they were on the move, looking for a spot to lay more eggs for another batch of monarchs to continue the journey to Mexico. We’ll have more 80° days and 50° nights next week. I’ll be watching for stray monarchs but don’t expect to see any but those who tarried too long further north and now try to catch up with the swarm.

The thousands of asters on Strawdog grew as a tribute to these winged creatures until I realized how the many species of bees used them far more than the monarchs. The monarch migration may last a week, but the asters and other fall flowers continue to bloom long after the chilly nights and the departure of the butterflies. The many species of bees, less flamboyant and eye-catching, take over the task of pollinating and gathering nectar. As in the human world, it’s the quiet, more humble ones who do the work of keeping our lives organized and efficient, usually receiving little recognition. I will not be guilty of this in the future and will honor the bees as well as the monarchs.

The goldenrod, rich with pollinators.

My neighbor John came over today with a gift of paw paws. He kept looking at the flowers with a look of disbelief. I pointed out the bees to John, their pollen sacs or scopa and the color of the pollen. When he couldn’t find any pollen on the sacs of one bee, he looked perplexed. I told him that bee was collecting nectar. He was fascinated and we walked around looking at what seemed like one bee per flower, an astonishing quantity, doing their work quietly and diligently, filling the air with a sound only bees can make.

The abundant seed from the asters, well-fertilized, will drift into the 25-acre meadow below the homestead and, in time, that area will be a rich source of nectar and pollen. Some asters and showy goldenrods have already taken up residence there, close to the fence row. Every year more will appear, just like they did in the homestead, when I stopped mowing and let the natives come in.

Asters and goldenrod

When my partner developed Parkinson’s disease and could no longer do the mowing, I simply couldn’t take care of all the labors. I decided to mow paths wide enough to walk on and let the rest grow as it might. I had no idea then that a maze would be created. Now, some of the natives grow over 6’ tall. As I walk through the narrow pathways, the plants fall over on me and children literally get lost in the jumble of foliage. I remember Logan and Brady, my grandsons, yelling for help when they weren’t sure where they were.

I like to not look where I’m going and meander from one path to another, ambling about seeing interesting insects, trying to find the bird whose call I just heard. I’ll spot a poison ivy or bittersweet and mentally mark the spot for eradication duty. I notice plants I hadn’t seen before as the quadrants continue to develop character and they settle into themselves, “Oh look! A royal catchfly.”

Blue sage and sea oats

 Of course I lent a helping hand, transplanting asters, showy goldenrod, coneflowers and other natives into the fescue. The forbs slowly pushed out the fescue grass and asserted themselves. In ten short years, the homestead has gone from having maybe a hundred asters to so many I could never count them. It could’ve been the bad guys, like invasive thistles or Johnson grass, that some farmers I will not name let grow in their fields, instead of the beautiful asters. It’s truly a wonder to watch a field, a plot of earth return to native plants, as if they’ve waited patiently for just the chance to thrive. Stand back and watch it happen.

Before a hard frost comes, I’ll visit the gardens daily, feasting on the beauty. In the dead of winter as I look out, I find it difficult to remember what the gardens looked like through the growing seasons. Let them sleep. Let me rest too. Come spring, I’ll have that same sense of disbelief when suddenly the sleeping gardens come alive.

A Monet-like view of the garden

Renewing a friendship

Naming Zoe 1988, oil on canvas, 58 x 62 inches

Recently, an old friend tracked me down on the internet. The richly detailed letter she later sent with a family update reminded me of this painting, Naming Zoe, (her daughter, named on this occasion after ours). And I was reminded of the wonderful letters we once exchanged. There is nothing like an envelope arriving in the mail with a friend’s handwriting, a postmark from afar, an interesting stamp. Few people write letters any more. I send thank you notes and try to write email messages as though they were letters. My sister Mimi is a wonderful correspondent, her letters full of her life and musings on it. Her evocative words put me right there with her. I have saved every one.

During these trying times, encounters with friends make my day, whether they are via emails, phone calls or letters. I resolve to be a better communicator knowing how much these connections can change my mood from sad to elated.

So, after a long gap in writing this blog, here are some of the foods I have been preparing. I hope they inspire you.

One of the tasks I have accomplished in these strange times is to cull recipes that I do not use or cannot imagine making, from my books full of clippings and print-outs, scrawls on bits of paper. One of the keepers is a recipe for Jerusalem Bagels. I found this on a wonderful blog ─ http://davidlebovitz.com . Reading David’s posts is like hearing from a friend, plus the recipes are dependably delicious. The dough is simply made, then the stretched bagels are finished with a pomegranate molasses glaze before being dipped in loads of sesame seeds and baked.

The Shark’s Ink studio is in editioning mode with prints by Amy Ellingson and Enrique Chagoya in the works. For hard working printers I like to offer a little sweet dessert, a lemon sablé, a slice of banana bread, or simply a piece of dark, dark chocolate at lunch time. Or this ─

My favorite fall fruit is plums, especially so-called prune or Italian plums. Here is a plan for a plum cake, adapted from a classic Marion Burros recipe. I make the batter in my Cuisinart.

Combine 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup sugar and pulse until smooth.

Add 2 large eggs, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.

Then mix in, until just combined, 2/3 cup unbleached flour, 1/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon baking powder and a pinch of salt.

Scrap this thick batter into a buttered springform or other cake pan. Arrange 24 plum halves on the batter, then sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350° for one hour or until firm when tested with a toothpick or skewer.

This simple recipe is adaptable to other fruit ─ I made it with peaches and raspberries and I think pears or champagne grapes would be delicious.

So, my friends, stay well and maybe write a letter!

Temenos

My sister Mimi Hedl joins me again with this post from her farm in central Missouri.

filderkraut cabbage forming a head 2

My friend Jenny has often written about her temenos, her garden, her sacred enclosure. At Strawdog, my temenos, the gardens expand to three acres and within those boundaries, many special places exist, nurtured and cared for as if only they mattered.

Only wealthy people have this kind of luxury, this form of wealth, to tend a small kingdom and watch it thrive. My richness comes not in the normal sense of money and power, but rather in my freedom to do what I love, take care of this piece of earth. When I write about my surgical maneuvers, removing shrubs, eradicating this or that, it may not sound glamorous to you who don’t garden with the same passion, but for someone trying to find the harmony of their land, to put what will grow well in each micro-environment, it feels like solving an impossible puzzle. The thrill of finding a seedling growing in a spot I never thought of putting it, seems like a hand reaching out and ever so gently guiding me.

The compost piles have always impressed, especially children. Firstly, they can’t believe a pile of weeds and coffee grounds, lemon peels and melon rinds, will turn into the soil they see in the next bin, ready to spread, so light and fluffy it looks good enough to eat.

The last 8 years I’ve dedicated to giving more ground to all the critters, from bees and butterflies, to deer and turkey. It shouldn’t have surprised me when rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks and even armadillos moved in. Many screaming fits have resulted. They solve nothing and make me feel foolish. So now I realize I simply have to get smarter, plant more and share with everyone.

shot of teepees with wire barriers 2

I figured that growing vertically might make a good move. With my largesse of cut bamboo, from a lengthy eradication campaign a few years ago, I have plenty of material for trellises of all types. I like teepees. I like the way they look, how easily they go up and how I can secure the base with a 10” tall strip of old screen wire, looking for a purpose in life.

At last count, a dozen teepees stand tall, my own village. These enchant children and if not for Covid I’d see Brady and Logan, my grandsons, running around them, trying to pick the beans and cucumbers from on high. Of course they’ll want to go inside and of course they can’t. So I decided to erect a wire cattle panel as a refuge for them, for children of all ages. When the heat bears down, going inside a shaded area, even for a short period, extends the time a gardener can endure. Plus it’s nice to watch the bees going about their work, a butterfly flitting here and there, as you stand still, inside a quiet cocoon.

Japanese climbing cucumbers 2

The cattle panels had stood behind the asparagus, where, come high summer, the ferns fall over and the head gardener complains of having to push the mower through the jungle. To keep her content, at great trouble I put up the cattle panels to keep the ferns out of her way. Now, years later, the asparagus crowns push under the panel and she can’t easily weed, so it’s been requested I remove these panels.

I sigh and comply as I feel grateful for any and all help. But where to store the panels? They’re 16’ long, 4’ wide and made of steel, heavy. I lug three of them over to the daffodil bed, now quiet, pound in 2 fence posts with my handy post driver and manage to angle them up against the fence posts, tying them in place. I still have one more, at the head of the bed and I hate to drag it the 100’ down to the corralled panels, so I say, “the arbor!”, as I remember my plan for the children.

These wire panels are awkward, heavy, tough to navigate through all the shrubbery and gardens. I so wish for help but with this pandemic, don’t think of hollering for any unless I have an emergency.  Ron put up 4 arbors, did I help him? I don’t remember. If I did, I probably didn’t pay attention but rather was thinking of the next job I’d do, or navel gazing… I could’ve saved myself much misery, in countless ways, if I’d paid more attention. Sigh….

I find the spot in the second 1/4 acre where I want the arbor and proceed to try to bend it into an arch. It would’ve made a funny video to watch my clumsy attempts. As I said, this panel is not only heavy, it’s strong and seemingly unbendable. I’m ignoring some basic principle, I mutter as I try again and again to put it in place. Oh how badly I want to call Mark, my helper. I persevere. I have no luck and in an hour simply wear myself out trying.  I lay the panel on the grass, sigh again and go about other tasks.

As I work, I think of all the adages Ron used to repeat: “The job’s not too tough, the hammer’s just not big enough”; “If I had a lever long enough, I could move the earth.”  I stopped at that one. I don’t want to move the earth, I just want to bend that panel. Hmmmm…I said to myself. And thought on it until the next day.

Fresh and inspired by Archimedes, I pounded two stakes into the ground with my trusty post driver, lugged the panel in front of the stakes, went to the other end of the panel, and lifted it up, pushing it against the stakes. I won’t exaggerate and say it was easy, I was sweating bullets to push it into place, but I did it, and shouted so loud, “I’m a genius!!” anyone nearby must’ve wondered who got hurt and if they should come help. Once I had it bent, I pounded in the other two stakes, secured them to the panel with wire, and admired my brilliant work.

 

Archimedes arbor 2

Now moon flowers grow along with a Thai kang kob squash. I hadn’t planned on the squash, but it saw the panel, grabbed ahold with its tendrils, and climbed over the top. It’s such fun to see the squash hanging down, the flowers rich and glorious in their gold, that I’ll let melons and whatever, grow over the panel in the future.

Now I realize part of the adage Ron left out is necessary, “give me a lever long enough and A FULCRUM ON WHICH TO PLACE IT and I shall move the earth.” Thank you, Archimedes. You’re welcome to come into this wonderful temenos anytime you want relief from the burdens of understanding the universe.

Our Lady with Cherokee Trail of Tears beans on teepees2

 

 

Midsummer

 

Lower Greeter Falls (2)

Lower Greeter Falls 2007, oil on canvas, 50 x 66 inches

The long hot days of summer elicit a languor in me and my cooking. This year the ennui provoked by the pandemic amplifies my usual slow summer pace. We eat the season’s fruits and vegetables from my garden,  Zweck’s farm stand and the grocers, in simple dishes.

I read that nostalgia may be a help with stress and take great pleasure in rereading recipes and finding the occasional note on a recipe listing the date when, and the guests for whom, I have cooked a dish.

Venice book

I browse through my cookbook collection to rediscover recipes to use with the plethora of delicious food now available.  The northern Italian book for a zucchini risotto, Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors for a cold chard and sorrel soup, and my own book for cold beet soup.

tuna and beans

I like to prepare some of the day’s food first thing while the house is cool.  I may cook a pot of beans to have for this tuna and bean salad, defrost chicken to grill for dinner, bake a batch of cookies, or marinate tomatoes for the following.

ingredients

I had a bag of our first tomatoes from Zweck’s, juicy and flavorful. I remembered a recipe from The Silver Palate, “Linguine with Tomatoes and Basil”, that I make only in summer when homegrown tomatoes are abundant.

The original recipe is quite rich, too rich, so I have adapted it to our taste. I encourage you to read and use recipes this way.  They are a guide, a template, not the gospel. And as my sister Mimi wrote here last time in Summer Cooking, “most things don’t need exact-ness”.

marinating 2

So, I had a pound of tomatoes, a bunch of basil, and the ends of several pieces of Brie, about 4 ounces. I chopped the tomatoes into 1-inch pieces, the basil into ribbons and tore the cheeses into smallish bits.  I added a chopped and mashed clove of garlic and a couple tablespoons of olive oil and left the bowl on the counter to marinate all day.

marinating

At supper time I cooked 5 ounces of linguine in salted water until tender, yet al dente.

Then in a serving bowl, I tossed the hot pasta with the cool tomatoes and cheese and served with a bowl of grated parmesan to garnish.

pasta with tomatoes

Another summer favorite is watermelon. This salad is inspired by one I had years ago at Zolo in Boulder.  I have a ton of wild arugula going mad in my garden so some goes into each day’s salad.  It’s a perfect partner to watermelon ─ bitter and sweet.

arugula

For this salad I cut slices of watermelon into 1-inch chunks, and tore the arugula into manageable bites.  Dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, then crumbled over some Amish blue cheese (I often use feta).  You might top off with some chopped dill and a generous sprinkle of toasted pepitas or sunflower seeds.

watermelon salad 2

We have had some delightful visitors here on Blue Mountain Road.  As I opened the door to set the dinner table on the front porch one evening, I surprised a doe and her twin fawns, still with spots and giant mule deer ears they will grow in to.  They have since returned to drink from our rain water tank, once coming within an arm’s length of my chair. These encounters enrich our lives and bring us down to earth, out of our pandemic funk and worry.  We are so fortunate.

fawn

 

 

Summer Cooking

In 1970, our first year in London, I came across the cookbooks of Elizabeth David, available in inexpensive Penguin paperbacks. As she did for a generation of English cooks, David became my guide to a new world of food and a new way to cook.  You can read my tale of discovering this treasure in How I Learned To Cook, An Artist’s Life.  I was excited to share her books with my sister, Mimi, and sent her one of my favorites, Summer Cooking.  Here is Mimi’s take on that formative time with Ms. David.

summer cooking 2

 

Summer Cooking ─ Mimi Hedl

Back in 1971, freshly returned from Rio de Janeiro and living with Cindy Carlisle in Boulder near the foothills, my first husband (out of two) and I tried to figure out what to do next. One day a package arrived from England. That was exciting in itself, a package from England, but coming from Barbara, I knew it would be special. All these years later Summer Cooking, by Elizabeth David, has never failed me. As a very unformed 24 year old, this book opened my eyes. I began to see food as more than nourishment, preparing food as an art, especially when some of it came from my own garden.

I remember devouring every word in this book, so unlike the Betty Crocker cook book our mother raised us on. Elizabeth David gave a history of foods, where they came from, how they’ve been used, and little stories that enhanced the recipes. Reading her words I felt part of a larger world.

first recipe

Barbara placed asterisks by special recipes. So I tried Salad Espagnole for my maiden voyage into a new way of cooking. So simple, so few ingredients, but absolute perfection and wonderful picnic food. It called for shallots, not easily found back then, so I decided I had to grow them. Mayonnaise challenged me. After two or three attempts, the mayonnaise came together as it should, firm and beautiful in its freshness.  I felt the triumph of a challenge met. Aioli would soon follow.

Barbara’s few words at the beginning of the book, motherly, and a bit stand-offish, (she hadn’t decided about me as her younger, somewhat pesky sister), have stayed with me all these years. “Most things don’t need exact-ness.” Her husband as a master printer may quarrel with this, but most of us don’t deal in precision. It seems like a wonderful way to approach life, to not demand perfection, but to learn how to make things work and feel satisfied when the bread doesn’t rise quite as high as Grandma’s or the cake dips in the middle, to figure out how to make substitutions during a pandemic… Granted, that wasn’t exactly what Barbara had in mind, but stretching an adage seems perfectly acceptable, especially in hind sight.

most things 2.

This lesson takes years to learn, and Barbara’s words have been passed on to many of the young cooks and gardeners I’ve mentored. It can be painful to watch someone frustrated because they don’t think they measure up, or to watch someone pull every single tiny weed out of a bed of lavender, taking hours to do a job the boss would do in minutes. But that perfectionist streak seems part and parcel of our psyches, impossible to erase, but with work, we can tame the beast.

Growing up, Barbara was everything I was not. Popular, in clubs and groups, with boyfriends and with a bedroom of her own, where she had a radio, imagine, and privacy. The door was always closed, so I could only fantasize about what she did. She drew, performed in plays, and her head was always stuck inside a book. She had ideas and even went to the Guthrie Theater one summer. Exotic was a word I would’ve used to describe her, if I had had the vocabulary.

So this book represented an entry into her world, a world I had only dreamed about. What makes someone, at a young age, so sure of themselves, and someone else, in the same family, totally insecure? It’s a lovely mystery I have no interest in solving. As I remind my young friends, it doesn’t matter when you blossom, only that you do. For me, it was a long, slow process and began with little gestures, like this book of Elizabeth David’s.

favorite 2

In time, I would acquire all of Ms. David’s books and especially love one titled: Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. It was a book Barbara had given to Mom. Every time I’d visit Mom, I’d pick up that book and read, comment on little things in the book and Mom would always be interested, but she’d never read the book herself.  During one visit, Mom said, “Why don’t you take it with you?” and I did.

Now I have one of those nutmeg graters, pictured on the cover, that holds a nutmeg in a little chamber and grates the nutmeg so nicely, opening the senses when I brush off the nutmeg that clings to the metal. A whiff of a fragrance like that can turn a sour mood into one of optimism in a second, one of the reasons I enjoy herbs and spices and like to spread the gospel. Also such fun to show it to people who’ve never seen a whole nutmeg and to explain about the netted covering on the nutmeg, called mace.

poppy pods

I’ve begun collecting seeds and drying herbs for the winter. I often carry on a conversation with Ms. David. She enjoys eating the bread seed poppies out of her cupped hand, as I tilt a ripe pod towards her and let the seeds fall out. Once the seed matures, the poppy pod becomes a salt shaker. Children love this and ensure seed gets scattered every which way. Birds do the same. They’ve figured out a way to cut through the holes in the shaker and help themselves. I have to harvest the seed quickly if I want my share.

common oregano 2

Now it’s oregano. Not Greek, but the pink-flowered, common oregano. I prefer it for an all-purpose oregano. The others have a stronger flavor and can easily over power a dish or soup. But the common tastes mild and I can use it liberally. Ms. David cautions me about drying too much and says, “Three-quarters of the dried herbs bought in an excess of enthusiasm by amateur cooks end up in the dustbin because they have been kept too long.”

I tell her I couldn’t agree more, but now we have compost piles so at least it gets recycled. I assure her I will use all of the ½ gallon I dry as a handful goes into every bean soup I make, and I make at least one a week during the winter. She eyes me skeptically, and looks a great deal like my sister Barbara…

And then I realize because Barbara gave me the initial book when I was so impressionable, I imprinted on her all of Ms. David, and forever more the two will intertwine. It’s quite lovely how we do that with characters from books we love, poets we read, musicians, whatever, and I feel quite sure Barbara will roll her eyes and then laugh and say, “Whatever.”

 

 

 

 

Birthday Month

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Zoë Hiking 2003, charcoal on paper, 38 x 30 inches (from a 1976 photo)

June is birthday month for us as we celebrate Bud and Zoë on the 10th and 11th.  Each year we plan something special for those days.  This time Zoë organized a camping trip to Hermit Park, just fifteen miles up the highway from Blue Mountain Road.  We shared the cooking tasks and I brought grilled salmon, potatoes with a vinaigrette and olives, (in Lunch for an Artist), and grilled asparagus for our first evening.  Zoë surprised Bud with his favorite dessert, banana cream tarts, easier to transport than a whole pie.  And she brought a pint Mason jar to use to make the whipped cream topping – by shaking!  It really worked, perhaps with Bud’s magic touch.

Zoë made our dinner the second night, using a box of Annie’s mac and cheese for a base.  This is real camp food and we all feel some nostalgia for other camping trips when Annie’s was the easy choice for dinner.  She embellished the basics with roasted red peppers, peas and basil.  Perfect after a day of hiking and lounging around the campsite.

It was great to get away into the mountains, if only up the road a piece.

Meanwhile, the weeks stretch on and I look for distraction in my cooking.  We often have vegetarian meals and during this stay-at-home time with limited grocery shopping, it’s what I want to cook.  I have dipped into cookbooks that hadn’t been cracked open in a while and rediscovered dishes.  The chard I planted last year self-seeded profusely in unexpected spots so I was pleased to find a recipe for chard gratin in Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors.

chard gratin ingredients

Wash, then strip the leaves of  a couple bunches of chard from the stalks.  Chop the leaves into 1/2 inch ribbons and the 1/2 of the stalks into 1/4 inch pieces.  Chop a medium sized onion into dice and sauté in two tablespoons of butter with the chopped stalks until translucent.  Add the leaves, and the water that clings to them, and cook until tender.

chard gratin ingredients 3  Make a bechamel with one tablespoon butter, one tablespoon flour, and a cup of milk.  Cook for a few minutes then add a cup of grated cheese – cheddar, gruyere, goat cheese, or whatever you have and like, and a bit of parmesan.  Add this to the veggies and scrap into an oiled baking dish, here a treasured piece by Betty Woodman.

chard gratin ingredients 2

In a small skillet, melt one tablespoon butter and brown one cup of panko or other bread crumbs.  Stir in three tablespoons of fresh herbs – dill, parsley, chives, mint – and a finely minced clove of garlic.  Strew the crumbs over the chard mixture and bake at 350° for 25 minutes until browned and bubbly.

ready to bake

 

In the New York Times I found a delicious looking recipe for asparagus and orzo with lemon.  Succulent pasta, lots of tender asparagus, and again, crunchy bread crumbs.

orzo with asparagus

Cook a cup of orzo in boiling water until almost tender.  Drop in a pound of asparagus, trimmed and cut on the diagonal into 1/4 inch pieces and cook for a couple more minutes.  Drain and toss with the dressing – 1/4 cup of olive oil, the zest and juice of a lemon, salt and pepper.  When cool,  add 1/4 cup or so of grated parmesan, and 1/2 cup chopped dill, parsley and mint.  Top the salad with 1/2 cup of panko that has been browned in a tablespoon of olive oil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

orzo with asparagus 2

And finally, a lentil salad from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty.   I had roasted tomatoes on hand so this dish was a quicky but if your pantry does not hold them, they are easy to make and a great condiment to have on hand.

Halve largish cherry tomatoes or small Romas and place, cut side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment.  I do this in the toaster oven. Drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, some crushed, chopped garlic and salt.  Bake at 275° for an hour and a half until semi-dried but still juicy.  Store in a jar, covered in a thin layer of olive oil, in the fridge.

Put 1/2 a small, thinly sliced red onion in a bowl with a big pinch of salt and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar.  Let them marinate while you cook a cup of black or French green lentils.  I used Rancho Gordo black caviar lentils – superb.  Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then, while lentils are warm, add the onions and vinegar.  When cool, stir in lots of chopped parsley, dill and chives.

On a platter or individual plates, layer the lentils and onions with roasted tomatoes and crumbled bleu cheese.  I like mild Amish blue here but the original recipe calls for gorgonzola.

lentil salad

 

 

 

 

A Guest Writer

mimi and melons

Summer  2012, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches

Last spring I introduced you to my sister Mimi, a gardener and cook living on Straw Dog Farm, her home of over thirty years in central Missouri.  I am pleased that she will contribute to this blog with the occasional piece about her life in the garden.

 

It can feel difficult to navigate these troubled waters. Crises on many fronts. Pain and anger, death and sickness. Exhaustion. I remind myself I’m a tiny cog in this machine we call our world, that I have a part to play, and I need to do it well to contribute to the smooth running of this machine. So I work harder, smile more and feel grateful for my good life, as I celebrate us all.

Mimi Hedl

 

gateway

My culinary herb garden began its life 30 years ago. It has become a temple, of sorts, to my love and appreciation for the magic herbs give to food. The most humble of meals becomes a taste and visual treat with the addition of parsley, cilantro, or any of the other herbs people the world over have discovered and honor. If cooks knew how easily most herbs grow, our meals would taste richer.

Every year I try to add another herb to one of the formal beds or along the edges, where rougher herbs like epazote can ramble. It’s wonderful to see the delight on a friend’s face when they recognize an herb from their homeland. I especially remember, Saori, a young Japanese woman, who shouted enthusiastically when she saw beef steak plant, “Shiso, shiso! You have shiso!” And she proceeded later, to make tempura batter and show us how her family eats this herb. And it does taste like beef steak.

layout of culinary garden 2

The garden sits about 200 feet from the kitchen. When I have guests and realize I forgot to pick the tarragon or basil, dill or cilantro, I’ll ask my friend to please run out to the herb garden and bring back a handful. Suddenly their eyes glaze over. “You mean out there by the sauna?”  Yes, I’ll reply as I cook another tortilla. After 10 minutes I’ll rush out to the garden and see them puzzling, walking around in somewhat of a trance, with several herbs in their hand. I then realize I should’ve had them watch the fire as I fetched the herb. It’s a big, strange world out there to the uninitiated used to buying herbs in plastic containers with labels. Now, however, with the addition of my new ceramic labels, the guess work has disappeared.

sage and rue2

Our sister Susan discovered pottery years ago but when she retired she had time to play and explore the possibilities. She’s made beautiful bowls, bonsai containers, ikebana vases, and many, many other things as she allows clay to lead her. Now these ceramic tags.

Last fall, as we talked on the phone, I casually asked if she could make plant labels. She said she’d never done it but felt sure she could. And like a house on fire, she experimented, came up with ideas, and started asking more questions than I had answers for. I tried to slow her down a bit, so I wouldn’t have to do my part, write down the names of the herbs, make choices… (Pathetic, I know.) She’d have no truck with that. She wanted to do it. And now! (This comes from our mother, who would’ve made a great general.) Finally I told her I trusted her judgment completely, to keep them simple. Susan and I decided on a shape and the rest I left in her hands.

When I came home from a trip in November, I found them waiting for me. I hadn’t planned on unwrapping the box, but when she asked what I thought of them, I felt I’d better look and see. I was stunned by the two I opened. Wow! I said to myself, and to her, then stored them until just a few weeks ago and had another Wow!  as I viewed one after another of these beautiful tags.

garden sorrel

We’ve had a cold, wet spring. Weeds grow apace. Finally the head gardener had time to dutifully prepare the beds for the labels and a few days ago I ceremoniously planted them in their proper bed and smiled at how official, how open for business, this culinary garden looked. I even spied Brother Cadfael, who has an apothecary garden connected to this culinary garden, sneaking, yes, sneaking over to the herb beds to snatch up some chervil that hadn’t gone to seed.

You can see a few of the herbs that have come into their own, despite the cool spring. Garden sorrel, a sour herb, tastes delicious in salads, in soups, or a leaf or two grabbed as you pass by looking for a sharp taste in your mouth.  Sage flowers beautifully and in the background, rue flowers its lovely yellow blooms. I read that gardeners in Central Park in New York City can’t keep rue plants in their gardens, because someone pilfers them as soon as they go in the earth. I like that. Here, they self-sow with abandon and become host plants for swallowtails later in the summer. Italians use the leaves in salads, in small doses. Some people, including me, get a dermatitis from the leaves on hot summer days, when sweat pours down and the leaves react with your skin and the sun.

rose de rescht, rue and lemon balm 2

Although no labels appear at the entrance to the culinary garden, you can see the rose de rescht that flavors a rose petal wine and the lemon balm behind the roses that also make a delicious wine, as well as tea. And more rue I’d kindly share with the gardens in Central Park.

As the herbs come into their own in each bed, I’ll write more about each and you’ll get a closer glimpse of the plant and the label Susan made.

With much appreciation for the fine work of Susan this was produced by Barbara, written by Mimi and inspired by Susan.

culinary garden

Isolation

iris

These last weeks isolated at home have made me  appreciate how lucky we are to live on this hillside.  We read about the terrible pandemic and the loss of lives, shop for groceries only  every ten days or so, miss seeing our friends, and feel sad that favorite restaurants and shops are closed and struggling to survive. But for us, with studios and home in one spot,  life goes on in an almost normal fashion.

I have put off writing here because of ennui and lack of focus.  I found it hard to accomplish much besides making meals, gardening and exercising.  My creative endeavors stall out after feeble attempts to carry on.

But I have been cooking and here are some of the dishes we have enjoyed.  Earlier this year I had revived a sourdough starter stored in the freezer.  In late March, when it was impossible to find yeast, I used it to make bread.  As a frugal cook, I hated having to discard part of the starter each time I fed it, so was excited to find recipes online for using this to make English muffins, pancakes, and crackers.

sourdough bread

english mufins

King Arthur flour company has been a particularly useful site for baking recipes.  With some of my hoarded yeast I made ‘Beautiful Burger Buns’ to have with buffalo burgers.

buns

A new pita bread recipe from Smitten Kitchen promised to produce big balloons but mine didn’t puff.  They tasted great but were flat breads not pockets. Perhaps I need to make an altitude adjustment and use more water in the dough.

pita baked

Aside from baking, I have made falafel, some to eat with my flat pita, the rest to freeze for another meal.

falafel

We have enjoyed old favorites such as kale salad with apples (recipe in First Post).

kale salad

I have been scanning my many cookbooks for inspiration.  Deborah Madison’s volumes are a treasure.  I made two of her delicious recipes ─ one for masa crepes filled with chard and chiles ─  from Vegetarian Suppers

crepe2

For the crepe batter:

Combine and whizz in the blender 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups milk, 1/2 cup masa harina, 1/2 cup unbleached flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons safflower oil or melted butter.

The filling combines sauteed onions, jalapeños, oregano, cilantro, garlic and chard.  I added some thick yogurt and grated cheese. 

filling2

The crepes are filled, folded into quarters, then fried in a little butter.

masa crepes

Another Madison recipe ─ scrambled eggs with corn, tortillas and salsa ─ from The Savory Way.

In a tablespoon of butter, saute a couple green onions – chopped, a handful of cilantro – chopped, and a cup of corn, fresh off the cob or thawed from frozen.  When tender, pour over four beaten eggs and scramble to your likeness.  Have ready two plates with two warm corn tortillas.  Ladle over the eggs and top with grated jack or cheddar and your favorite salsa.

scrambled eggs and corn 2